Saturday, September 12, 2020
when the piano won’t speak
by Douglas Messerli
David Lang face so pale, a work of six pianos / presented by Piano Spheres on YouTube, September 8, 2020
A few days ago I had the opportunity to finally see my first musical concert since February 2020, which must have represented the last performance this year in Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The new performance, a live, on-line, rendition of David Lang’s piece for six pianos, face so pale, featured Vicki Ray. Susan Svrček, Sarah Gibson, Mark Robson, Thomas Kotcheff, and Gloria Chen, each presumably playing their own pianos from their own homes.
Based, in the broadest sense, on a work by the mid-15th century composer Guillaume Dufay—a chanson and mass, as Lang describes it, which he drastically slowed down—the work consists primarily of the six pianists toggling back and forth between two keys as they gradually, in different directions, move up and down the keyboard for the work’s 8:45 minutes.
The result is not as structurally confined or repetitious as one first might think. With six pianists, each moving along the spectrum of the serial double-note composition, the communal sound they achieve is a bit like quiet glass bells pulsating from a distant point in space—which might have something to do with the fact that the piece, first released in a recording by Piano Circus in 1993, was later performed with Brad Meyer on six vibraphones by the UKPG.
In the piano sextet I saw, however, there is also a slightly less ethereal quality to the acoustics. Lang reminds us that although the piano is generally thought of as being an instrument of highly emotional expression, that it is, nonetheless, a kind of percussion instrument which depends upon a hammer hitting a string from which the sound vibrates. Accordingly, he argues, there is a tension always on the piano between the ethereal and something that is fraught or even tortured.
When Gloria Cheng, interviewing him, expressed some of the difficulties of bringing six pianists together in a zoom-like concert playing in their own spaces on instruments which each have a slightly different totality, she concluded that, at times, the piano wouldn’t “speak.”
Lang smiled as if to say that was precisely what he meant by the tortured quality of his sextet.
This became apparent even in the YouTube concert, when one by one, the pianists dropped away, leaving finally only one, Vicki Ray, quietly playing out the quick shifts of one note to the other. By the time she quietly came to the composition’s end, the music appeared to be more in the mind that in the air, as if the piano had silenced itself to be replace by a closure of echo rather than the actual vibration of strings.
It seems to me that the tension this work hints at between the open flow of music and its always potential absence is a near perfect metaphor for our current time in which those of us who care about our survival during the seemingly endless pandemic must live in somewhat closed-off worlds, in semi-isolation. Yet, we can and do speak to one another, even if we are in terror that suddenly our voices might no longer be heard.
Los Angeles, September 12, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (September 2020).