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The birthday of contemporary music

This photo is among my favorites from childhood. I am eleven here, beside my beloved mentor Albert Leman who would have turned 104 yesterday. Mr. Leman was a composer, pianist, and an overall brilliant mind. A possessor of the gigantic paws of a piano lion which allowed him to play whatever he wanted effortlessly, he was someone who believed in the power of a strong structure beneath everything. His rigorous and tough work with little me created the momentum that has helped me continue learning and yearning and figuring well past our last lesson (he died when I was fourteen). Here are some facts and thoughts, as well as the questions I ask myself along this journey.


It was he who made me compose 3, 4, 5-voice fugues and double fugues starting age 9; drilled me on variations, sonata and rondo forms, which I had to write in a timely fashion; tenderly shifted my obsession with Mahler 8 towards Bruckner 8 so I didn’t get stuck with one idol. He often gave me the most excruciating piano lessons where we would polish 10 measures for 4 hours. Having taught at the top floor of Moscow Conservatory as the chair of composition there, he would regularly point his finger at the wall of his renowned 35th studio and hiss “if you stop writing music, you would be like THEM!” (Behind the wall, piano students would bang through the most popular Etudes-Tableaux or Mephisto-Waltz or Dante sonata, all sounding the same.)

Writing music made me develop an ability to strip the sense of familiarity from any piece of music I am starting to learn or coming back to. Even when dealing with famous, fairly “overplayed” music, I look at it as if I have never seen or heard it before. I put note to note together as if it is just being written in front of me, noticing inner patterns, hidden lines, making myself at home. I find it joyful to discover that things actually written in a score are often far different from how I am used to hearing them in performances, and make it a point to play them as written. Such an approach has been a blessing to me, and certainly an outlet for mallet-headed traditionalists to yell “how dare you play Liszt like a German symphonist!” Writing my own music also allows me to quickly find harmony and comfort in something written with extreme dissonances or hiatus, which sometimes can be found in so-called ‘new music.’


But…what is ‘new music?' How do we define it?

  • Is it something written recently – and, in that case, how recently should it have been completed to be still considered ‘new’? Days? Years? Decades?

  • Should the composer be still alive? And if s/he is now 90-years-old, should their opuses from 1950s be perceived as ‘new’?

  • Or is it all in the ears of the listener? Should the term indicate something that we hear the very first time in our lives? In that scenario, Beethoven’s Appassionata may well serve in that role for whoever discovers it today.

  • If I wildly embellish the repeats in a baroque suite or a set of variations –should that also qualify as new? After all, it is created here and now and incorporates elements that other interpreters may not have thought about.

  • When I write original music using knowledge, systems, forms, harmonies, chords, and structures well modified and twisted by my mind, but having been around for centuries – how ‘new’ is that? I still rely on the power of a unison, or a sustained bass, or carefully disguised dominant.


We often hear people say “New music? Ummm, I am not a fan, I rather listen to [insert your preference].” And why does this keep happening?

History knows countless examples of scandalous world premieres of the works we worship today, with furious critics, booing audiences and composers-colleagues walking out in disgust.

At least they all bothered to go witness the premieres as they probably wanted to soak in the lakes of the unexpected and see whether they would come out forever young. They cared to hear the new voices. And those voices were often bulletproof, as time has proved.

Now, how many times we hear fellow performers go “oh, don’t worry too much about this new piece in the program, we’ll be okay. We read it yesterday, it’s fine. Nobody knows it anyway, and if we make some stuff up, who would know the difference – probably even the composer doesn’t remember all of what they typed in their Finale program anyway.” Hah! Would you dare to say the same playing Beethoven, or even Prokofiev...?

Maybe this is why the interest in new music mainly spikes in places where musicians approach the new music performance with a doubled enthusiasm. One needs an extreme focus to both portray the complex scores employing extended techniques and to radiate the extraordinary energy to help the audience be drawn into thinking and apprehending within the new dimension of this music. You can’t make stuff up – unless you are directly asked to by the aleatoric needs of the piece. You have to present your program from the best angle you can find, and from the place of love, bearing in mind that uninspired and uninspiring performance is a waste of your lifetime and the lifetime of your listener (which is true for any piece of music you play anyway), and a potential turnoff for that listener from attending anything related to classical music in the future. The listener is someone you want to have falling in love with this new world of sound. This is a customer whom you definitely want to have come back, repeatedly, and to bring friends!


Some time ago, I encountered a mind-boggling conflict of opinions about my own performance of Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasy, Op.61. Two people commented on it in two absolutely polar opposite ways coming from the same impression: a piano teacher said, “You’re playing this piece as if it was contemporary music! Who do you think you are? Go study the composer’s style, before approaching this piece”; and a conductor, who said, “You’re playing this piece as if it was contemporary music! You brought a new life to this polonaise and I heard so many new things in it that I have never heard before, thank you for that.”

At the time, that conflict truly tore me apart. It made me question myself and others and saddened me a lot. But over time, it made me stronger and bolder.

The main questions that I ask myself while performing, writing and transcribing, are these: What is contemporary music? What can be contemporary and what cannot? Is it a positive or negative term? What does it even mean in the context of a live performance?

Recent authentic recordings of Baroque music often sound more contemporary than over-romanticized approaches of the mid-20th century. Music by Chopin, presented in a salon style where the bass doesn’t match the melody in time, can get tiring, even though stylistically it is not wrong at all. Arvo Pärt often sounds like he was shaking hands with Palestrina, and when I listen to my dear colleague, pianist Redi Llupa, and his haunting interpretation of the 5 piano sonatas of incredible George Walker, I know I am listening to timeless classical music. There are countless contradictions to discuss, where at the end anything can be contemporary, because exact but ever-changing musical text allows it. It is all in the ears of the listener and imagination of the performer, making anything new and old. Do you want the comfort of the well-known in familiar music, or you want to hear it fresh without ruining it? Do you crave the sharp unpredictable edge of a premiere, or you want to find an angle where it would sound like a classical masterpiece?

It is all in our hands. And in the hands of our teachers. They can drown us in the dark waters of never-ending traditions, rotten in their unforgiveness. They also can sharpen us and motivate to read what’s written, to never stop wanting to learn more, to understand the importance of structure, to find out what else is there, - and to be tireless in that.

Happy Birthday, Albert Semyonovich, I only miss you more, and more.


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