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?