Sunday 12 June 2016

Quiet time for ruminations: listening for silence with Steven Osborne

Steven Osborne - copyright Benjamin Ealovega
Steven Osborne - copyright Benjamin Ealovega
The Music of Silence, music George Crumb & Morton Feldman; Steven Osborne; Milton Court Concert Hall
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on May 31 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Pianist Steven Osborne on trying to play the piano as quietly as possible in George Crumb and Morton Feldman

Last Tuesday night (31 May 2016), in the Barbican's Milton Court Concert Hall, Steven Osborne (1971-) indulged his lifelong fascination with "trying to play the piano as quietly as possible" in a concert based around the piano music of Morton Feldman (1926-1987) and George Crumb (1929-). In a pre-concert talk with BBC Radio 3's Tom Service, Steven Osborne explained how his preoccupation had begun very early when learning to play, and how, for a pianist, silence can still be a "tactile experience". For example he spent time investigating what happens to a piano's reverberation when a pressed key brings a hammer to the strings but no audible sound is heard. He compared this to Crumb's reported interest in the way that birdsong appears to hang in the air.

This led into a discussion about the nature of silence in music. Osborne talked about Feldman having a "profoundly different sense of what music is" and that it is "difficult to define what he [Feldman] is doing... he wants sounds with no attack, no beginning or end". However, Osborne continued, the final effect is like a bedtime story where you are not told the story but are given the space in which to imagine it.

Osborne described himself as a traditionalist saying that "I find myself disengaged [...] without narrative". He explained that he prefers music with traditional notation because having to practice for a performance means that the performer cannot be spontaneous - giving the example that things that might sound the same are often written in several different ways and have to be rehearsed to be understood.

Finally, with a humorous anecdote about Bach's Passion, he asked for no applause between the pieces - nor at the end.

The concert itself started with Intermission 5 (1952) by Feldman. In this short piece atmospherically quiet, slow and almost Debussian/oriental meanderings were broken up with four very loud chords. The pianist is required to hold down the sustaining (damper) and una corda pedals throughout so that sympathetic reverberations can be heard underneath the notes as well as when nothing is being played.

Processional (1983) written by Crumb for his friend Gilbert Kalish, continued the Debussian feel. The start was light and pulsating, bringing to mind a summer's day with dappled light. Again the sustaining pedal was used to bring out sympathetic vibrations. After loud spiccato-like chords the music again became more lyrical, then rolling and ascending, crescendoing to another climax. This was followed by a beautiful reworking of earlier material, until a low and quiet end.

The pointillism of Piano piece (1952) was followed by the even quieter Extensions 3 (1952), both by Feldman. These were the two most abstract pieces, and the hardest to listen to; although Extensions had more repetition, texture and chords to hold on to - this was very fragmentary.

However, Crumb's A little suite for Christmas (1979) was a delight. Use of oriental-sounding scales and tunes produced a dream-like quality. These bell-like fragments were interspersed with plucking inside the piano to produce an entirely different yet complimentary sound. Drum-like sounds were produced by touching nodes on the strings while hitting the keys, and, as each section progressed, use of the pedals resulted in harmonic reverberations adding to the mystical quality of the suite. "Canticle of the holy night" introduced a recognisable version of the 16th century "Coventry carol", during which the piano is used as a harp. A return to more oriental ideas led back into earlier material and an abrupt ending.

The final work, Palais de Mari (1986) by Feldman, was the longest. The idea behind this work was a fascination with old middle eastern carpets. Osborne had talked about the colours in these carpets changing due to the nature of vegetable dyes, which can only be used on small batches of wool. The result is a gentle set of variations which gradually unfold from vague ramblings into recognisable themes. The programme notes describe the piece as being largely consonant - however my experience was that dissonance was a major element used to break up internal repetitions.

As per request there was no applause - although once he had walked off-stage people gave in and Osborne got his thoroughly deserved applause. Although not every piece was to my taste, it was nevertheless a lovely performance. Osborne managed to bring atmosphere with the slightest of touches - showing that the time he spent investigating silence was well spent.

The only problem with the concert was that ruminations of a more digestive kind, along with heavy breathing (ahem snoring) as the audience relaxed were at times louder than the music. Added to that, in the quietness, the ticking from the lighting as it cooled down sounded as loud as a cuckoo clock.

While these are unavoidable, they perhaps explain why such concerts are rarely attempted and why the Barbican should be applauded for supporting Steven Osborne's choice. Without such risks concert goers would deprived of the opportunity of exploring musical experimentation and experiencing thought processes which have driven forward music through the 20th century to the present date.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover 

Steven Osborne's recording of music by Morton Feldman and George Crumb is available from

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