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Piano Techniques Summit at WESTPAC II

By Alan Eder, RPT
Chief Piano Technician
California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA.

The second annual combined Western and Pacific Regional Conference, held in Salt Lake City, included a “summit” focused on extended piano techniques, comprising a full day of classes plus an evening concert. BYU piano technicians Jim Busby and Keith Kopp organized both the Extended Piano Technique Summit and the overall WestPac II conference. They are to be commended for their fine work and tireless efforts. Members of the Guild who were in attendance for the Summit took great pride in having our organization be the catalyst for such an in-depth exploration of this music--often challenging to audiences, and ALWAYS challenging to piano technicians. It was a stellar example of the kind of collaboration that is required in this, and so many other aspects of our work.

The first period class was surprisingly replete with hearty souls capable of mobilizing bright and early after an evening of revelry, following the banquet the night before. It centered around the video, “Non- Traditional Piano Use,” which I produced in conjunction with the Piano Shop at the Herb Alpert School of Music at the California Institute of the Arts. The session opened with “Piano Rap,” a brief video we show at the new student orientation each year--emphasizing the highly pertinent theme of communication--in a musically memorable way. (In fact, throughout the class, the crucial principles of communication and collaboration between technicians, composers and pianists continued to resurface.) We then pondered the history of extracting unexpected sounds from the piano and other keyboard instruments, and took a look at instances of damper damage caused by pianists who were “unaware” that they had even made contact with the dampers during their inside-the-piano carousings. The main event of this class period was a group viewing of what has been called the definitive video on extended piano techniques. Afterwards, we considered supplementary materials (a quiz about the information imparted in the video, and a fill-in-the blanks diagram of the inside of a piano) and closed with a raffle for a copy of the professionally produced DVD. (To obtain a copy of your own, contact me at aeder@calarts.edu.)

For the second period, I joined fellow College and University Technician, Don McKechnie, RPT, pianists Jason Hardink and Scott Holden along with composers Sue Neimoyer and Michael Hicks for a lively panel discussion, moderated by Marcus Smith of Brigham Young University’s radio station, KBYU. He first hour of the panel was recorded for later broadcast, and included such topics as: “Confessions of transgressions visited upon pianos by the pianists on the panel”; “Where does normal wear-and-tear leave off and abuse caused by improperly executed extended techniques begin?”; and “Trouncing the sacred cow.” Once again, the importance of all concerned parties partnering to explore the extended sound world of the piano, and do so in ways that are piano friendly was repeatedly driven home. During the last half-hour, the panel fielded questions and reacted to comments from the audience. After lunch, Utah Symphony pianist Jason Hardink discussed and performed excerpts from George Crumb’s “Makrokosmos” and Curtis Curtis-Smith’s “Rhapsody.” Curtis-Smith pioneered the use of piano bows, and his “Rhapsody” was performed on a Steinway D, which had been rebuilt and extensively modified by Ron Nossaman, RPT. 

Piano prepared for bowing, with fishing line threaded between strings

During the final class of the day, BYU composition faculty member Christian Asplund led the audience through an historical look at the prepared piano works of John Cage, featuring the actual preparation of the pianos (made visually accessible to all in attendance by careful video monitoring) and performances by several of his students. Asplund is an authority on Cage’s work and his students proved to be quite accomplished at performing the pieces selected (“Bacchanale,” “Totem Ancestor,” “And the Earth Shall Bear Again” and “The Perilous Night”). Following the last class, the five pianos at the venue were prepared for the evening’s concert, for which the audience swelled to fill the venue. The concert program consisted of: I. Stephen Scott’s “Entrada,” played by nine students under the able direction of BYU piano faculty member, Scott Holden. This piece featured extensive use of piano bows, for which the composer is so well known, and was as much a delight to see as it was to hear. II. Excerpts from John Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes,” in a nuanced performance by BYU graduate student Jenny Cho. Ms. Cho demonstrated an exceptional affinity for the sound world of this work (which would have delighted the late composer), one of the best-known and most often played examples of prepared piano literature. 

Piano prepared for a John Cage piece.

III. Pianist and aspiring piano technician Neema Pazargad performing the first of two world premieres by composers from CalArts (where he earned his Masters Degree in piano performance). For “Euphotic,” by composition faculty member Ulrich Kreiger, Pazargad was joined by BYU music student Matthew Webb (a composition major, whose main instrument is viola, no less!). The graphic score they realized made extensive use of touching, strumming, and plucking the strings, along with drawing rosined fingers pinched around pieces of fishing line that were tied to various bass strings, all to the accompaniment of droning “E-bows” that moved from one pitch to another as the piece unfolded. IV. CalArts DMA composer/performer Milen Kirov’s “Vortex,” in it’s maiden public performance. This piece, from Kirov’s doctoral opus of piano etudes, was a tour-de-force for Pazargad, who handled the rhythmic complexity of the score (written in 13/8) with great aplomb. Equally impressive was the pianist’s ability at playing two pianos--situated at a ninety-degree angle to each other—simultaneously. V. The concert closed with Jason Hardink performing excerpts from George Crumb’s “Macrokosmos.” This performance was propelled into sonic hyper-space by the other-worldly tone, sustain and power of the 10’ 3” Fazioli model 308 concert grand piano, generously provided for the occasion by Rick Baldassin, RPT. Hardink met and exceeded the score’s demands both on the keyboard and inside the piano, his exceptional pianism and the piano’s extraordinary sounds both dazzling the enthralled audience. At the day’s end, one of the BYU faculty members commented that he could hardly believe that folks who are so well informed about music, so wellspoken, and so personally concerned with the education of young artists are piano technicians. “Believe it,” was the response his observation elicited. “We ARE piano technicians, but we are also so much more than JUST piano technicians!”

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