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