The role of the soloist



The project grew out of a need I felt to improve my ability to tackle challenges I had faced playing piano concerti based on contemporary aesthetics for which my training as a classical pianist had not adequately equipped me. In piano concerti like Ausklang by Helmut Lachenmann and Double Concerto by Unsuk Chin, I could depend upon recordings of the compositions to get a sense of the general architecture, something I was unable to do simply by studying the orchestral score alone in the practice room. After getting to know the recordings, I could play together with my co-musicians in a performance context and function relatively well given the tight constraints we work under in the world of classical music. But I was not completely satisfied with the sounding result or with my role as the soloist.




Ausklang has an incredibly rich timbral palette, and the piano concerto has a duration of staggering 50 minutes. There is a complex relationship between the orchestral voices and the solo piano, in which the instruments of the orchestra are transforming the sound of the piano, creating an illusion of a ‘super piano’. The soloist’s part is challenging and encompasses all of Lachenmann’s signature techniques such as having the pianist play two ‘superimposed’ compositions in parallel. On the top layer, the pianist presses the keys as usual. But at the same time, the pianist also plays ‘silent music’ by pressing other keys silently, sustaining them with the middle pedal to create a resonating backdrop to the upper-layer composition. The technique is extremely effective, and it is exploited to the full in Lachenmann’s music. Several sections have as many silent notes as struck ones, which makes the solo part particularly virtuosic. Lachenmann himself travels from place to place himself to instruct soloists and orchestras when his major works are scheduled for performance. I performed Ausklang with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in February 2010.  Ahead of the performance, we went through the solo part in detail, and Lachenmann demonstrated by sitting at the piano playing himself.

From a rehearsal of Ausklang. Helmut Lachenmann, Ellen Ugelvik and Bergen Filharmoniske Orkester

Photo: Vegard Valde/Bergens Tidende 11.2.2010

As a researcher within the arts, I also need to stand aside and observe and reflect upon what is happening. In what ways might my discoveries be said to be transferable to other situations? How can I raise my personal experience up to a transpersonal level so as to benefit others in addition to myself? Early in the project, I got some feedback that suggested that the project might have value for others as well as for myself:

A good example of how a demonstration can be informative was delivered at the festival symposium. Ellen Ugelvik presented her work with Bente Leiknes Thorsen’s piano concerto at the tips of my fingers / on the tip of my tongue. … Through demonstrations such as this, we gain not only insight into how interpretations of Thorsen’s music can vary, but also a general understanding of musical phenomena such as direction and accentuation/rhetoric. Such demonstrations also satisfy the scientific requirement of verifiability. Because we can hear the difference between before and after, we can draw knowledge from the development. With such knowledge, another exploratory musician may attempt the same, with the same or a similar composition.  (Andersson, 2015: 10, my translation)

The project’s point of departure was my experience as the soloist in Ausklang. Embarking on the interpretation of this work I wanted to develop a method that allowed me to imagine the physical sound of the orchestra as I prepared the piano concerto alone in the practice studio. I nourished transparency and energy in my playing so that my soloist’s part would be incorporated seamlessly, and would enhance, the totality. I wanted to be free to make music spontaneously and to respond to what my colleagues were playing. I wanted to have the sound of the 81 musicians in my head so that I could practise with them even in their absence.

One autumn night in 2013, I arrived at a small, dark hotel, perched on a hill outside the Swiss town of Liestal. My room key lay on the table; in the restaurant were open wine bottles and snacks. The next day I met my co-supervisor, the late saxophonist and conductor John-Edward Kelly for the first and only time for a very early breakfast. He described his working method of ‘building the sound of a score inside his head’ as he prepared for the premiere of a saxophone concerto. He formed an aural image by starting, for example, with the bassoon’s part. He learned this part and then added the sound of the triangle. He reclined on the couch while he constructed the image, part by part. Finally, he could ‘hear’ the whole orchestra in his head.

Somewhat later, we discussed this approach in the research group The Reflective Musician. It was every composer’s dream, Lasse Thoresen, the group’s resident composer, said, to be able to hear the music before it was performed by real musicians. We wondered whether it was even possible. Playing techniques in contemporary music makes this task even more challenging than with traditional music. The performance and effect of superimposed experimental techniques in complex music were difficult to construct in one’s mind, especially since, in my case, I am playing at the same time. In Magne Hegdal’s Concert Piece in three sections (Konsertstykke i tre deler), a work with distinct, easily recognisable melodic lines or ‘layers of sound’, I would apply my version of the technique. However, I soon realised that my abilities to imagine the sound of an orchestra fell short of Kelly’s. I am simply unable to ‘hear’ more than one or two other instruments while I’m playing. The virtual space I was looking for refused to play along with me as I had hoped.

Reading Donald Schön’s book The Reflective Practitioner (1983) became a turning point for me. In the book, Schön describes what he calls virtual worlds, which resonated with my ideas. However, it was his thoughts on a reflective attitude the contingency of practise that provided me with an impetus to question of context rather than the autonomy of the single work. Schön writes:

In a practitioner’s reflective conversation with a situation that he treats as unique and uncertain, he functions as an agent/experiment. Through his transaction with the situation, he shapes it and makes himself part of it. Hence, the sense he makes of the situation must include his contribution to it. Yet he recognises that the situation, having a life of its own distinct from his intentions, may foil his projects and reveal new meanings. From this paradoxical source derive the several features of a stance toward inquiry which are necessary to reflection-in-action as the norms of on-the-spot experiment and the uses of virtual worlds. (Schön, 1983: 163)

It seemed to me that Schön suggested that, rather than attempting to create a private virtual space in the rehearsal room where I could add my part to the sound of 81 musicians based on the mental construction of a score, new insight could be gained by exploring the soloist’s role facing outwards. Although the major part of preparing a new piano concerto involves the soloist working alone in the rehearsal room, the flexibility I searched for gradually became clearer as I reflected upon the collective processes in which I took part as a soloist.

The position of the solo concerto is certainly as strong as ever. Piano concerti are performed daily across the world, and new piano concerti are constantly being created. A large part of the international standard repertoire for piano students consists of piano concerti. And since the genre is so well established, the setting is defined as well, but first and foremost, in terms of the piano concerto as composition. What I have found is that by exploring the level of awareness of the soloist’s role in the compositions, new types of context emerge. Contexts are pliable, and the points of contact differ with each work. In pre-existing compositions, this furnishes important information because we rehearse in relation to overt expectations about how the soloist should perform and behave. Enhanced awareness of the soloist’s role strengthens the likelihood of various interactions with the compositions and can facilitate a greater degree of originality of performances.

But in new works without sounding references, as with the piano concerti in this project, I believe it is a beneficial requirement for the soloist to be aware of shifting contexts and the role’s diversity in order to make a genuine contribution to the sounding result. The development of what I will call a progressive soloist role is at the heart of this project.

This leads me to my overarching research question:

Which abilities do I need to develop further to enable a progressive soloist role when faced with challenges in completely new music, and what are the extended effects of such an expanded role awareness?

‘If you play my piece again I’m gonna break your legs’

According to contemporary music lore, a composer once remarked to a cellist after a concert that ‘If you play my piece again I’m gonna break your legs.’ My classical training has taught me that my role as a musician is to try to ‘reveal the composer’s intentions’ behind the work and to render these ideas as ‘correctly’ as possible. According to Walter Gieseking, and Karl Leimer

[T]he most distinguished and most renowned musicians are very particular as to accuracy in their interpretations and reject all that is contrary to the intentions of the composer. Correct execution of a composition is the only foundation upon which a excellent interpretation can be built. (Gieseking and Leimer, 1972: 43)

As a practitioner, I need to avoid ‘ruining’ anything for the composer or letting my lack of talent get in the way. Much is at stake:

In my musical activities, I have realised that it is mostly the less gifted musicians, technically and emotionally, who do not fully grasp the content or message of a work and who, because of these limitations, take liberties and retouch a piece to make it interesting, which in fact is always falsification. The young musician almost never understands how difficult it is to play correctly. That means not only finger-technically but also expression-technically, exactly according to the wishes of the composer. (Walter Gieseking, in Gieseking and Leimer, 1972: 6)

In my work with institutions, orchestras, composers, conductors, students 2 and musicians in other professional constellations during the project, I found this rather vague perception to be fairly widespread, whether the music in question was old or new. Our role as practitioners consists mainly of trying to ‘uncover the composer’s intentions’ and let the music ‘flow through us’ with minimal resistance. This is the position covered by the term Werktreue (Goehr, 2007).  We are placed, or choose to place ourselves, under the composer’s will and control. In the words of Sergei Rachmaninov:

Behind every composition is the architectural plan of the composer. The pianist should endeavour, first of all, to discover this plan, and then he should build in the manner in which the composer would have had him build. (Rachmaninov, 1999:208)

During the project, I realised I could improve the conditions needed for the music to thrive even more if I expanded my options by becoming clearer about my abilities in these processes, in addition to trying to understand the ideas of the different composers. Rachmaninov was a pianist himself, and he composed at the piano. He had, moreover, very big hands. In this video, by Igudesman and Joo, the musicians are making a humorous point about the way we musicians are trained to strive to fulfil the composer's intentions.

By thinking about my own starting point, i.e., my relatively small hands, my background, conception and approach to music, technique and body as important and positive factors in my performances rather than as limitations or constraints which, in the worst case, could get in the way of the composer’s plan, I would be able to develop a more progressive mind set and simply play better because I had a stronger sense of ownership and closeness to the compositions.

The next step in this line of thinking is that my abilities can also be a resource at various levels in entirely new works, factors that organically complement the composer’s ideas. After all, it is I who will play the work for the first time, and it may be the first and only time the music is played. The soloist’s abilities and skills become an intrinsic part of a new composition. The way I play and think, the way I talk about music, imprint themselves onto the score. This is an approach that some of the composers in my project used as a working method. ‘I work primarily with people, not with instruments or paper’, says composer Therese Birkelund Ulvo (2016). She composes in close dialogue with performers and focuses on how this exchange of ideas with other musicians can supplement the composition. As a soloist in brand new piano concerti, I confront new challenges in each new concerto because music is new every time. My role changes together with the music that is being created. And each piano concerto also means working with new people, new concert halls, new audiences and new concert grands for each premiere. Moreover, these new piano concerti are unlikely to be performed more than once.

From my perspective, the new piano concerti in my project are related to the notion of site-specific artworks like those of Robert Smithson, Richard Serra or Dan Flavin. A site-specific work put simply, is a work of art created for a specific geographic location that will remain at this location either permanently, such as an installation, or temporarily and moved way after a short time. Some of the piano concerti in this project were written for specific performers in mind and with the soloists’ personal abilities as part of the material. This is the case with Ulvo’s Woven Fingerprints. In the introduction, the composer writes: ‘Woven Fingerprints is written for Ellen Ugelvik and Andreas Ulvo, and they have been crucial in the process. Their fingerprints are very present. Traces of Ellen and Andreas are brought out to the orchestra in different ways. All the material is in some way sourced from my intense listening to Ellen and Andreas playing.’ The work can be played by other soloists, insofar as it exists in the form of a score, but there is one important proviso: our personal qualifications as soloists formed part of the composition’s structural design, and that aspect will be gone. The background material for Trond Reinholdtsen’s piano concerto Theory of the Subject derives from two large preliminary projects in which I participated and was filmed; indeed the resulting video has a significant place in the piano concerto. If it were to be played by a different soloist, the preliminary projects would have to be redone, and the piano concerto adapted accordingly. Works in which the soloist forms part of the creative plan in this way I have called performer-specific works. 4

I wanted to pursue this idea further. What would happen if I looked at all the piano concerti in the project as performer-specific works even if my personal abilities had not formed part of the compositional material? This emerging idea evoked a role-related awareness that was very different than the approach I had otherwise developed through my training as a classical pianist. Where before I had been trained not to ‘stand in the way’ of the compositions, I now moved to the centre, as one of the key elements of the composition. As the project moved forward, this progressive role awareness, I discovered, was useful to me, giving me greater flexibility and confidence in relation to the large collective apparatus surrounding the new piano concerti.

This progressive role awareness was useful as a general philosophy or outlook, and it allowed for a more active co-creating role in the piano concerti. The nature of the role changed relative to each composition and in relation to different partners. It was interesting to investigate where and how in the various processes my contribution could have a decisive effect on the sounding result. In Thorsen’s piano concerto at the tips of my fingers / on the tip of my tongue, I was involved in the compositional processes right from the moment the idea for the concerto was aired, and I worked closely with the composer over a long period, discussing ideas and solutions. In other works, such as Diamond Dust, the initiation of a fruitful dialogue with the people involved in the weeks before the premiere proved an important element of this co-creative, progressive role.

© Ellen Kristine Ugelvik | go to top

Our rehearsal time for this concerto was relatively generous compared to other contemporary piano concerti that I have played, but the rehearsals were concentrated into a very narrow window just before the premiere. In my opinion, Ausklang did not ‘function’ optimally in our performance, we were unable to convey an idea of the whole, and we had had too little time to get to know the effects of our ‘super piano’. I tried playing the solo part as Lachenmann had shown me, but it felt contrived and unnatural because my proficiency and my interpretation were obliterated, in a sense, and I became sort of a puppet. My playing was ‘flatter’ than I had wanted it to be and the music suffered on its debut into the world, even though we played everything in the score, and followed Lachenmann’s demonstration as closely as possible. 

I decided to conduct a research project which that would allow me to study the role of the soloist and the capacity of this role to influence the processes that lead up to a concert performance by working through five new piano concerti – this time without audible references.

In search of a new role 

I am the soloist in this project is myself. I play the solo parts and, however much I may be informed by input from others, I ultimately decide what I need to reflect upon. I am also the one who premiered and commissioned most of the piano concerti featured in this project or who was hired by an orchestra to take the role as a soloist. My role as performer and the processes I have initiated and worked through provide the material for this research project. 1


In the following, I will describe what happened when the adrenaline was ‘pumping at full thrust’, and I had to make decisions at the spur of the moment in a concert situation. I also want to illustrate how some of the lengthy processes leading up to performances sometimes resulted in friction between the music and me, or with others involved. I will interrogate aspects of musical life, which, for me, seemed vague in my role as soloist. These processes resulted in new insights for me and my colleagues, and they subsequently became intrinsic elements of the artistic outcomes.

Ellen Ugelvik | Pianist