Pianist: athlete

My eyes wandered back once again, involuntarily, to his forearms.

No elegant, long-limbed evocation of romantic Chopin here. Andrew Czink, pianist, could have been a boxer. Certainly his concert is as much a dramatic athletic feat as a musical exploration. But isn’t that how it is? Isn’t playing any instrument the culmination of long years of intense physical training? Didn’t I have to give up rock climbing when I started learning the standup bass?

Czink’s primary stated goal was to explore a sonorous practice.

”It’s really exploratory. What can happen if I play this note as fast as I can for five minutes? What kind of impetus and motion does this scale compel me into?” the audio engineer, teacher, GLS doctorate candidate and classical performer said of his structured improvisation. “It’s about movement, tactility and sound.”

And so he pummelled. As fast as he could. As loudly as he could. As fiercely as his forearm muscles would allow, and all the while as attenuated, differentiated and delicately phrased as those self-same, well-trained muscles would allow.

Andrew Czink is interested in the embodied physicality of playing music, or “musiking,” a term used by Christopher Small to underline that music should be thought of as a verb rather than a noun. Czink is interested not only in the pitch and duration of notes, but also the noise of the piano hammers hitting strings. “This is a compositional resource,” he said in a pre-performance presentation.

Czink’s 30-minute musical performance seeks to combine his physical body, his mind and emotions, the entire physical piano as well as its conventional ability to create musical tones, a pre-composed musical outline and in-the-moment/in-the-location improvisation.

I heard eight movements. The first consisted of increasingly long and complex variations on a short motif, each separated by held notes which allowed the piano strings to ring and waver into discordant distortions. It was an exploration of pacing and space. I began to worry if I’d last the full 30 minutes.

The second movement involved repetition of a note and variations. The third movement introduced physical, repeated hammering on some notes and included a transition to a more melodic line.

The fourth movement was clearly melodic with the introduction of chords. As a listener, I was now grateful for the more obvious melody and 4/4 rhythm. I found it intriguing that Czink made a mistake in this movement. His face twitched but he kept going. I wondered how many in his audience detected this mistake in a performance piece that was so complex and unpredictable.

The fifth movement may actually have been an extra long 4th movement. Did I miss a transition? He started using a bass note to lead the melody.

The sixth movement had a clear flow. There was phrasal movement in the non-stop flood of repetition and chordal notes.

The seventh movement returned to the clear, physical hammering with roots and fifths in the bass interspersing an ever higher drone reminiscent of The Flight of the Bumblebee. The physical virtuosity came to a climax as Czink shifted on his piano bench to play higher and higher registers.

The eight movement started moving back down toward the bass registers. For me, the sheer physicality of the feat dominated my response. Finally, Czink dropped his entire forearm onto the piano and waited for the sound to subside. I felt as though I’d watched an extended, tension-building athletic feat, and I was grateful for the release.

So here’s the rub. My engagement was largely a matter of watching Czink’s engagement, and Czink’s engagement was inward. Czink didn’t seem to mind, but I think I did.

Czink’s perspective?

“People say you’re expressing yourself in your music. I don’t know if I’m expressing myself. I’m configuring myself,” Czink said. “I have no stories. I don’t think that way as I’m making this stuff.”

 

— Jenny Lee

Sonorousness: Hearing More

On hearing Andrew Czink, Ph.D candidate
in Graduate Liberal Studies at SFU
Contemporary piano concert”    
May 15, 2016  

When I know I’m going to be challenged by music, I feel like I might as well settle in, buckle up, and try to let go, to just see where it takes me. On a rainy night last week at the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre, I sat deeper in my plastic folding chair, closed my eyes and allowed myself to be completely present in the moment.

When Andrew Czink spoke to our small audience on Monday night, it was clear that he thought about music in a much more transcendental way than I ever had. He opened up his talk by explaining that, as Christopher Small says in his book, Musicking, music is not a sheet of notes. It is a verb. It is “a sonorous practice”, meaning that it does, and should through its hearing, include all of the sounds that an instrument makes in producing a note, both intentionally and otherwise. The strike of a bow against the neck of a violin, the fingers sliding over the fretboard of a guitar, or the wooden clack of a hammer on the short, high note of a piano. It is the nature of the instrument and how it is handled by the player. What Czink plays is what he dubs “structured improvisation”. The piece he was to perform has, he says, no written notes. But he knew every sound it was possible to make in it, and some that might surprise even him.

Like having the wind knocked out of you, the first few moments of this piece were jarring, even stunning, in their volume and atonal dissonance. And then after the introductory assault, Czink froze over the keyboard, arched and waiting – waiting for the buzz of the strings and the hum in the wood of the piano to not only subside, but to become utterly silent. It  had to have taken at least twenty seconds for that silence to finally descend. The silence, held for a moment, was defining and dramatic. What followed was a continued warping of the sounds of what one expects to hear from a grand piano. There were 2-inch bamboo poles striking each other, rocks tumbling and eddies of wind. In a more musical vein, the piece broke into something reminiscent of the Bulgarian folk songs sung by Kitka, complete with verbal chatter in between sung phrases. Sometimes the voices drowned out the melody and sometimes the reverse was true. At this point, it occurred to me that Czink must be becoming physically exhausted. He was striking keys so fast and so hard, it seemed inconceivable. The sound went from controlled to frantic and back again and, ultimately, calmed like a Vancouver rainstorm, orderly in its rhythm, then disorganized and loud, then once again aligned and rhythmic. Symbolically, as the piece ebbed it sounded like a train, gliding into a station, complete with metal wheels on metal rails, brakes protesting.

Andrew Czink’s composition is experimental and fresh. It might not seem focussed through any familiar lens. It is a full-body experience meant to expose the hearer to sound and music in a new way. It can make us think about the edges beyond music, the places where music pushes us and sears itself into our memory. It’s worth a listen, with an open mind.

Dorothy Dittrich’s The Piano Teacher: moments of wisdom from an unlikely source.

 

Elaine has long come to terms with the arthritis which sidelined her performing career as a pianist – or so she thinks.

She’s remade herself into the kind of inspired piano teacher who comfortably accepts a student’s desire to not perform on recital day knowing, perhaps, that the music lives already in the child.

When Erin, a celebrated pianist so grief-stricken she can’t even bear to sit on a piano bench, asks Elaine to be her teacher, playwright Dorothy Dittrich uses their relationship to explore grief, loss and the potency latent in music.

“Music is a language. You have to learn to speak it, not just play it,” Elaine (Caitriona Murphy) says in the Arts Club’s production of The Piano Teacher. “Music played from the heart is healing.”

When Erin (Megan Leitch) recounts the recital day incident in an imaginary conversation with her husband, I want to cheer in solidarity for all young music students. “Imagine the freedom, Kevin. Imagine the space not to play,” Erin says.   The child said, “’I learned a bunch of songs,’ and sat down!”

Humour lightens what could be a heavy theme. Erin doesn’t like Beethoven because he was “too big, too loud. Probably a bastard.” Elaine admits Chopin’s music “reminds me of clammy hands.”

But for all the levity, Megan Leitch’s Erin is a painfully accurate depiction of the desperate loneliness and emptiness of depression. Jenifer Darbellay’s costumes are perfect in everyday simplicity. Although we never actually see Erin’s thin, bare, brave shoulder-blades, we feel them.

Patrick Pennefather’s spare sound design skillfully walks the line between appealing to intellect and emotion, and never descends into overblown indulgence.

While Elaine’s love interest, Tom, is a lightly sketched character played with amiable animal warmth by Kamyar Pazandeh, there’s no real need for Tom to be fully-fleshed. Depression flattens perspective and if one is emotionally ready, as Elaine becomes, even the smallest event or interaction can be enough to help spark a return to life.

As a musician, I warmed to Dittrich’s theme. Playing music is indeed “a relationship,” that transforms both player and listener. The chord “unbroken” can  sound “banal”, but broken, can indeed be “sublime.”

“The broken chord acts as a container for the melody,” Elaine says poetically. “It supports without imposing itself.”

In one heart-stopping moment, Elaine asks Erin “What’s (composer Aaron) Copeland to you?”

Erin answers with one word: “Space.”

“This man has found a way to make us hear the landscape and the space around it,” she continues. “He’s given space a voice.”

As Erin regains her ability to play music, Elaine finds the space to explore her own loss. “I wasn’t prepared for Erin,” Elaine says. “How could I be? She was the teacher.”

Yet while Erin and Elaine’s dialogue is clear, spare and delicate in its dance between emotion and rationality, Elaine’s lecture/musings occasionally jarred with painful banality. I felt an almost physical affront from inane lines like “Life changes you,” and “I think you just have to be grateful for what you have and do the things you love.”

Does the blatancy of these lessons, along with the obvious metaphor of Elaine installing a giant new window on her landing at home, originate from the playwright? Dittrich, afterall, also wrote this sensitive, illuminating observation: music is “sounds and silence in motion. It has to have space and time. Sometimes it gets too intense and it has to breathe.”

Or does the responsibility lie with the Arts Club looking to provide its paying audience with simple answers nicely wrapped up in a picture window?

– Jenny Lee

Math and Music: Connections between Long Division and the Piano Teacher

Peter Dickinson’s recent Vancouver play Long Division uses mathematics as a framework to tell the story of how seven characters are intimately intertwined in their grief over the death of a child.  Famous historical mathematicians have their images projected on the set throughout, and mathematical equations and a Venn diagram are used as a metaphor for the human interaction that takes place in the story, while the script cheekily weaves phrases like ‘in addition’ throughout the dialogue to ‘add’ another layer.

Dorothy Dittrich’s new play at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre, The Piano Teacher, does all of this too—but replace the math with music. There are no projections, but many famous historical musicians are mentioned and some of their compositions are played.  Here we have only three characters, but as above, the reason for their connection with each other is because a child has died (and in this case, a husband also).  In her playwright’s note, Dittrich describes the story as being “about one of life’s most difficult passages,” – a play on words that means her character Erin needs to conquer her grief the same way a musician conquers a difficult musical passage.

Other connections between the two plays abound.  In each play, much of the story is told through monologue.  Long Division’s characters rarely interact with each other at all, but deliver almost all their lines directly to the audience in a lecture format, even looking up at the screen behind them to acknowledge images or photographs there the way a teacher would during a class.  The Piano Teacher’s characters interact with each other more often than this, but both the piano teacher Elaine and to a lesser extent, her grieving student, Erin, do directly address the audience at various points.  Despite this unusual choice in plays that are essentially about how much people interact with and need each other, in each play, the monologue technique works.  The audience is invited in as a character in the role of sympathetic therapist.  We listen patiently in our seats so the grieving can share their stories with us.

Each play’s production took stylistic risks.  Long Division used choreography in which characters would line up and silently perform ritualized hand motions or walk briskly between each other like cogs in a clock as another actor delivered their monologue to the audience. I’ll admit that at times I found their movements robotic and distracting, but at other times the action succeeded in underscoring the arc of the story, as when all the actors found themselves gradually intertwined in a tableau.  Where The Piano Teacher took its risk was in set design; at one end of the corridor stage, a series of wires or strings were strung between the ceiling and the floor.  They were clearly meant to invoke the wires in a piano and it was therefore unsurprising when during the course of the play, Elaine, the piano teacher, plucked them—however this action left me ultimately confused.  Although it was a striking theatrical set piece, I found it didn’t contribute to the story in any meaningful way.  Perhaps the intention of the chorography in the first play and the strings in the second was to take us out of a traditional stage set and create a kind of dissonance or tension to underscore the fractured feelings of the characters in their grief.

Both Long Division and The Piano Teacher were impeccably acted and directed, and the stage management in both productions in terms of props, lighting, projections and sound cues were flawless. Both enjoyable experiences at the theatre.

— Cathy Collis

long divisionpiano teacher

Dittrich’s The Piano Teacher: Grief and Metatheatre

Dorothy Dittrich’s, The Piano Teacher: Lessons on Life and Love posits several questions about grief including: how do we continue to perform our lives after shattering loss?

The Piano Teacher explores this question through the relationship between Erin and Elaine, which initially seems absurd (even to the characters). However, Megan Leitch and Caitriona Murphy’s portrayals made the idea of a piano expert needing a piano teacher credible. In Act I, Erin is crippled by her “traumatic loss,” while in Act II, it is Elaine whose spiral into anger becomes debilitating. The conflict escalates between the characters, as the piece, like any composition, needs to be “pulled apart” and (re)arranged. Tom’s integration seems a convenient plot device, but I was willing to go along with it because Kamyar Pazandeh’s charming performance adds necessary levity to the story.  However, Tom’s patience and affability in the face of Erin’s outbursts makes him seem flat and less inauthentic.

David Roberts’ minimal set design allows the characters to feature in the space. The grand piano’s singularly dark presence on the muted colour palate of the set, reinforces music’s centrality in the play. The strings stretched from floor to rafters create a maze of tactile threads, which nod to the play’s musical theme. As the play unfolded, I found myself wondering about the function of the strings, at times to the point of pulling me out of the story. In Act II, I began to see a correlation between the strings and each character’s emotional stance. When characters touch the strings, they confront their feelings, when they avoid their feelings, the strings become obstacles.

One area where The Piano Teacher falters is in the exclusive musical references. At times, the discussions of music seems like an inside joke. While many of the names dropped are familiar and the discussions are snarky (Beethoven is called a “bastard”), the meaning was clearer to audience members with a musical background. Augmenting the references with by clips of some compositions alluded to in the play, could elucidate meaning for patrons with limited musical fluency.

Comparing music to language and relationships, The Piano Teacher explores the music’s expressive powers and limitations. Relationships, language, and music each have the capacity to contain (but not suffocate) sufferers in periods of profound grief. However, sometimes that capacity is not realized. Sometimes grief mutes all expressive powers.  In The Piano Teacher, the most authentic lines compare grief to getting off at the wrong stop and then “having your head blown to bits and handed to you in a paper bag.” Even as Erin, utters these words, Leitch’s performance underlines how inadequate the analogy. No analogy would suffice, since grief causes such disorientation.  The Piano Teacher addresses the paradox of mourners who are compelled to speak the unspeakable.

In its best moments, Dittrich’s play use metatheatrical devices solve the problem of how to survive grief; sometimes mourners need the “space not to play” at least until they can “be in the space” with their grief.

 

The Piano Teacher

Arts Club Theater Company

Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theater Centre

April 20–May 14

It is sometimes difficult to see the forest from the trees and yet, some moments in time remain more memorable than others as it slows and provides a crystalline clarity as we recognise the frailties that come with being mortal or appreciate the beauty within each moment.

The Piano Teacher is a play by Dorothy Dittrich and touted as being about the lessons on life and love. It is!

From the very moment that Act I begins, Megan Leitch who plays Erin, Catriona Murphy playing Elaine and Kamyar Pazandeh who plays Tom, create a gentle tension of heartbreak and loss that is connected by the power of music and love, as they weave their way through this remarkable story of grief, compassion and joy.

For any of us who have experienced the paralyzing effect of loss and grief, it is difficult to not open our hearts to Erin (Megan Leitch), as she walks on stage and shares how she lost her husband and son in a tragic automobile accident with the hope that Elaine (Catriona Murphy) the music teacher who is gradually losing her hands to arthritis, might light the path back to her music and the concert hall.

David Robert’s has designed a simple and elegant set complete with a baby grand piano that becomes the central point in the homes of the two women as they remind us of the frailties that we all share. As for Tom, he was a welcomed metaphor for distraction and rebuilding, and he offers a playfulness and an interesting human touch to contrast the stories of Elaine and Erin.

In the May Edition of Vancouver Theater, arts critic Jerry Wasserman wrote, “ the play has a lot going for it—in particular, lovely classical music and a beautiful performance by Caitriona Murphy in the title role. It also features nice sentiment about the power of music to heal. But in other areas it needs significant work to develop it into something more than just a bromide about how things that are damaged will inevitably get better”.

As a reluctant critic I am struck by how different each of us sees, hears, smells and feels each moment in this world that shapes who we are. This doesn’t make any of us more right or wrong or something good or bad. Depending on how we enter this forest will determine how we see it, and how we are moved by the gentlest of movements, nuance, memories or sound. I applaud Dorothy Dittrich for a brilliant play and for having the courage to allow the cast and an extremely talented creative team to take it and breathe life into The Piano Player.

If you walk far enough into the forest, you can’t miss it!

Moving Through Grief: A Review of Dorothy Dittrich’s new play, “The Piano Teacher”

The Piano Teacher, a powerful new play by Vancouver’s Dorothy Dittrich, musician, writer, musical director and playwright, explores themes of loss and grief and the slow process of healing.  It is also a story of love and friendship and the healing powers of music.

The story starts with Erin, a woman who has been incapacitated by grief since the tragic death of her husband and son, killed in a car accident by a drunk driver, just before Christmas,  two years earlier.  Although she is a concert pianist, she has receded into herself, and has been unable to touch her piano since the tragedy ripped her life apart.

We meet Erin when she has finally been able to find enough energy and interest to attend a piano recital for the young daughter of a friend.  At that recital, Erin meets the piano teacher, Elaine, and unexpectedly discovers a sanctuary where she feels safe, again, for the first time.

Erin reaches out to Elaine, and the two meet at Elaine’s home.

Actor Megan Leitch, as Erin, does a masterful job of portraying the pain Erin is feeling, and at the beginning of the play, seems fragile and smaller than life.  On the other hand, Caitriona Murphy, as Elaine, portrays a vibrant and strong character who is very much in control of her life, but is also sensitive and empathetic to Erin and her pain.  The actors captured the fragility of Erin and the strength of Elaine in a powerful way that immediately drew me in, and I became an active part of the experience until after the last line was spoken.

As a friendship between Erin and Elaine evolves, we see that Elaine has also experienced her own losses and grief, but is healthy enough to be living a vibrant life.  She initially doesn’t know how to help Erin, but continues to listen and to be available for her.  This is a story of transition, of moving through difficult emotions to a different state of mind and health, with the help of people who offer their love and support.   Playwright, Dittrich, says that “something about flow and moving through a feeling struck me as distinctly musical”, and music is central to this work.  Part of the message I took from this play was that grief and loss can be mitigated, in part, by the act of creation.  In Erin and Elaine’s case, it was creating music, but other forms of creativity could also assist a person suffering from loss to move through the pain, and on to another stage of his or her life.

A turning point for Erin was when she had the courage to follow Elaine’s suggestion that she “make a change” in her life, and Erin made that change by hiring a handyman to install a large window in her home.  This was a renovation she had always wanted to make, but one vetoed by her late husband.  The installation was an obvious metaphor for bringing new light into her world, but it was also a significant step away from her past life, and into her new life.

The handyman, Tom, was played by Kamyar Pazandeh.   Tom added a new dimension to the play with his energy, humour, common sense, and his love of life.  We know that he had his own regrets about his life, but we didn’t learn a lot about these, as the focus of the work was on the relationship between Erin and Elaine.

As an audience member, drawn into Erin’s grief, I found it difficult to be reminded of the painful, visceral grief buried inside myself from the past, and of the knowledge that if I live long enough, more losses are ahead.  The work caused me to reflect upon how I might deal with this pain in the future, and was reminded of the power of friendship, creativity and the importance taking those difficult first steps forward, after a significant loss.

Congratulations to actors, Megan Leitch, Caitriona Murphy, and Kamyar Pazandeh;  creative team, Yvette Nolan, Director, Rachel Ditor, Dramaturg, David Roberts, Set Designer, Jennifer Darbellay, Costume Designer, Kyla Gardiner, Lighting Designer, Patrick Pennefather, Sound Designer, Allison Spearin, Stage Manager, and Sandra Drag, Apprentice Stage Manager, for bringing Dorothy Dittrich’s compelling work to life, and for contributing to the richness of Vancouver theatre and to the cultural and emotional experiences of those who shared this creative, thoughtful and important new work.