Saturday 13 June 2015

Towards an immersive experience - an encounter with pianist Christina McMaster

Christina McMaster
Christina McMaster
To describe pianist and curator Christina McMaster as a force of nature could seem to be lazy journalism and rather unflattering, but the term reflects the remarkable power and fertility of her creative interests. Trained as a pianist, she is more than someone who sits at the piano, as she draws fashion and other creative arts into the mix. In person she is petite, long-haired and stylish, but having spent an hour or so with her, I can only marvel at her welter of ideas and projects, not to mention the energy with which she pursues them. We met over coffee and cake to catch up on her latest concerts and forthcoming CD, Pinks and Blues.

Christina McMaster
Christina trained as a pianist at the Purcell School, Trinity Laban (with Yonty Solomon and Douglas Finch) and at the Royal Academy of Music (with Joanna MacGregor). She had what she described as 'on the surface a traditional career'. Her parents were not pushy and she had many interests including training seriously in gymnastics. It was going to the Purcell School which made her really work at the piano and Joanna MacGregor, at the Royal Academy of Music, who introduced her to a wide range of music including the American school of composers such as Henry Cowell, Charles Ives and John Cage, whose work features significantly in her programmes.

She has recently spent time studying with Bernard Flavigny, a 90 year old pianist who was the protégé of Alfred Cortot, Walter Gieseking and Olivier Messiaen, and thus can trace his pianistic lineage back directly to Debussy. This link with the past is clearly something which inspires here, and she talked of Bernard Flavigny with great admiration, mentioning his still playing for five hours per day. She worked with him on Debussy, on finding a particular, rather fluid, character in playing the music. Audiences will get a chance to hear this in her forthcoming recital at St John's Smith Square on 25 June 2015, when she is performing some of Debussy's preludes.

When she was first studying, as her outside interests developed she found she enjoyed bringing them together with music. Her mother is an artist and she herself is interested in fashion and art; Christina constantly seeks out the possibilities for an immersive experience. Interested in extending the concert or CD beyond the mere notes, she looks both for connections between the musical works and non-musical connections and links too. This extends both to immersive experiences, for example wearing clothes related to the music, and using multi-media. She talks of being inspired by figures like Sonia Delaunay (1885-1975), one of the key figures in the Parisian avant-garde (Tate Modern currently has a retrospective) and a prime example of someone who worked in multiple mediums and collaborated with both artists and scientists.

Christina McMaster
Christina enjoys exploring music and using connections between piece to help people explore unfamiliar and potentially difficult music. Her enthusiasm is palpable when she talks about sharing music with people and helping them discover connections.  This goes beyond just playing the works, to curating programmes and festivals. Last year she curated the Royal Academy of Music's Summer Piano Festival, working on seven different concerts over two days with 30 pianists and music including Henry Cowell, Stephen Montague, and John Cage). This year, the festival runs on 25, 26 June 2015 and she is devoting herself to multi-media and piano works with students from the Royal Academy of Music. Working with traditionally trained pianists who usually just sit at the piano and play, she has challenged them to do more and they have come up with a variety of stimuli including vintage films and cartoons. Christina will be performing John Cage to one of Maya Deren's films, an apposite linking as Maya Deren worked with John Cage.

Curating a festival is something that clearly interests her, and she admits to having notebooks of programming ideas. But she is realistic too and knows that these things take time, good venues and and excellent team.

Her CD Pinks and Blues is coming out in October on her own label. The disc mixes jazz and blues with classical works inspired by the blues along with new works by Richard Bullen and Freya Waley Cohen. She proudly points out that Richard Bullen is a young composer who is admired by Sir Harrison Birtwistle (another composer whose works she performs), whilst Freya Waley Cohen (sister of the violinist Tamsin) has written a rather dark piece inspired by one of the Nina Simone tracks on the disc. Christina also hastens to add that Freya Waley Cohen's work also extends to Bubblegum Jungle a witty work which is not on the album. Christina is also recording the Ravel sonata with violinist Lizzie Ball, for the album (the two were recently performing together at the glamorous Holders Season in Barbados).

Christina's inspiration for the album partly came from her fascination with the way classical composers kept coming back to the blues as a form, music which she calls 'truthful, soulful music'. Finding connections between pieces is never far away in Christina's thinking, finding a Ligeti piece influenced by Bill Evans she includes both the piece and a Bill Evans transcription on the disc.

Christina McMaster
The disc will be coming out on Christina's own label which she feels will give her more freedom to do things the way she wants. In her vision for the label, Christina has clearly visual as well as aural stimuli and talks of including art and fashion. She is currently working with artists and photographers on the CD artwork, and for her it is clear that the combination of music, art, and visual design is simply an extension of curating the pieces in the programme.

She constantly interested in collaboration with various art forms. Recent work has included some high profile fashion brands, and she sees the way fashion houses tie everything together in a catwalk show as being like curating a festival. She performed for Daks at the Royal Albert Hall and this collaboration extends to them lending her an outfit for her St John's Smith Square concert. She talks of Chopin and Liszt being known for their dress style, and feels that if any of these moves help bring someone new to the music, then they have been worth it.

Christina's current work gives an idea of the way she is interested in structuring and linking things. She is involved, of course, in the Royal Academy of Music's Summer Piano Festival. Whilst, on 10 June 2015, Christina performed at The Forge in Camden when she was performing in Daniel Patrick Cohen's new piece Reciprocity, a 28’ work for voice, taped narration, eight cellos, piano, and percussion. The piece sets six poems by Darya Farha, a Canadian poet, therapist, filmmaker and clothing designer. Darya died of breast cancer in 2011 when she was 46; Reciprocity was commissioned by her sister Juliana Farha.

Then on 25 June Christina is performing a recital at St John's Smith Square in programme which will include performing the Debussy preludes and those of Ruth Crawford Seeger interspersed. She refers to the Crawford Seeger works as dark, really profound with it and charm and says they should be core repertoire. There will be a new commission, and she will be playing one of Harrison Birtwistle's first ever pieces (she comments that when she first met the composer she was playing Harrison's Clocks in front of him, a work which she describes as fiendish). The final section of the programme is all bird related, so she will be playing in a bird related dress supplied by Daks. Looking further forward she has a residency at Dartington International Summer School.

Our talk veers quite widely but music, art and design were never far away. A discussion about the merits of different pianos and the travails of an itinerant pianist being dependent on the pianos they find, extends to talk on designing pianos with Christina saying she would love to deign one, mentioning that Karl Lagerfeld has designed a piano and that in the 19th century it was common for the instruments to be designed to suit the houses. Whilst the mention of Ruth Crawford Seeger sparks a whole dialogue on this fascinating musical family. I realise after we have parted, that after 75 minutes of chat, music and cake there was much we could have still discussed.

It is clear that for all her myriad interests and enthusiasm for collaborating with both fashion, visual artists and multimedia, it is the music which is at the core of everything Christina McMaster does. She seems to see each piece as potential connection, and uses these as a way of drawing people in. In less technically adept hands this might come over as light-weight, pink and fluffy. But much of the music Christina plays is far from that, being technically difficult and demanding on the listener, and she uses the connections with lighter pieces, other musical genres, the visual arts, fashion and multi-media as a way of drawing people in.

You can read more about Christina at her website, and there is a helpful list of events she is taking part in.

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