at the tips of my fingers

at the tips of my fingers / on the tip of my tongue


During the project, I experienced that the soloist’s role in contemporary piano concerti changes extensively from concerto to concerto. This is partly a result of an approach taken by contemporary composers in which they attempt to re-configure the performer’s role anew with each work (an approach for which Witold Lutoslawski (2008) coined the term ‘once-only convention’). This has the effect of making every new work – and, indeed, every individual process within it – a space for exploration and, to some extent, negotiation. I learned how fruitful it is to explore what my role might be within this space, rather than passively waiting to be allocated a place. The role of the co-creative musician represents, for me, a fundamental approach to music which can just as easily be about how I play one note followed by another as for how I respond to ideas that are basic to the artistic notions underlying a piano concerto. How I choose to play two notes in succession can, as I see it, have the same impact on the piano concerto’s total expression as thoughts about the new material, the incorporation of a playing technique I have developed myself in a work, or a digital solution I have also produced myself.


For me, the concept of the co-creative musician 1 represents a way of being and a way of thinking where I consider all works – not just the ones that are written specifically for me – to be performer-specific. It is not a goal in itself for me to accentuate or liberate myself through the performance, or to challenge the creative role of the composers of the works I play. My aim is always to ensure the best possible conditions for the execution of the music, based on my qualifications and capacity, and my knowledge of the context in which the music at any one time exists. I want to bring this fundamental position to all types of music and musical situations, both in old and new music.


My background as a performer of contemporary music has shaped this attitude. As a performer of contemporary music, one is constantly challenged concerning one’s instrument, one’s tastes, one’s limits, one’s role and proficiency by the aesthetic diversity of contemporary music. It is in the nature of contemporary music to challenge the status quo, to seek to impose risks. I describe this in an interview I gave in 2012 about the work ‘Serynade’:


It is rarely performed because it’s so fantastically difficult to play. ‘Serynade’ opens a world of sound that’s completely beyond anything I’ve ever played – and completely without the piano being prepared or any electronic aids,” says Ugelvik. … Every event is like a little island of its own, everything is incredibly refined and thoroughly thought out down to the last detail. In the beginning, I sat and laughed and was so happy simply because it had been possible even to make something so delicate – and yet so incredibly beautiful, powerful and effective. And as it sometimes happens when you’re playing, you have to learn to play the instrument from scratch. I think you have to destroy something in yourself, the way I’ve played and listened to myself, and build something bigger and more sensitive. It hurts! ‘Serynade’ is the type of piece that can change your life (Kydland, 2012: 8, my translation)


Every day, performers of contemporary music add more to their skills and proficiency by reconstructing what it means to play and by being challenged as to what music is and what it can become.

Performers of Contemporary music often experiment with work methods and with the staging of the music, in cooperation with composers. The new music often demands adaptability on the part of the musicians and a desire to contribute to the situation in addition to playing what is written in the score. I was interested in exploring in the project what would happen to a typical player of contemporary music in an encounter with the most 'classical' of our musical institutions, the orchestra. I wanted to see what happens to new music when it encounters one of the most ‘classical’ of all genres, the piano concerto. I formed the following research question

How does the role of a soloist premiering a new piano concerto differ from that of a soloist playing established concerti?

One of the most obvious responses to this question is, of course, the fact that the composer of the new piano concerto is alive. In the following, I will share a unique collaborative process and also show how the close relationship I developed with this composition through my role as a co-creative musician affected the work with a classical orchestra in the premiere situation. 

In the piano concerto at the tips of my fingers / on the tip of my tongue, I was invited to take part in the composition process from the very beginning and worked closely with Bente Leiknes Leiknes Thorsen until the premiere. In what follows I present examples illustrating co-creating elements that arose during the work on this composition and how the impact of this co-creative approach can be traced in the score. 

The co-creative musician

The process started with meetings during the summer of 2014 where Thorsen and I discussed what a piano concerto is and can be, our thoughts about being a soloist and the possibilities inherent in the role. Thorsen asked open-ended questions such as: ‘How does the pianist practice their part? What’s your worst experience as a soloist? Why do you do research on piano concerti? What’s the nicest sound the piano can make?’

As autumn progressed, we met for workshops at the grand piano. We experimented with Thorsen’s drafts. We had a good and fruitful dialogue. We explored playing techniques on the grand piano. Together we developed a suitable notation for transferring these to a score. Ideas were tried out and discarded, giving rise to fresh ideas.

As the deadline approached, I suggested to Thorsen that she might incorporate material that had been used before, i.e., audio recordings of her children. These recordings were, I thought, absolutely fascinating and had worked, in my opinion, extremely well in earlier compositions by Thorsen.  At the same time, she had been thinking of combining two ideas: an old idea of a chord slowly evolving against the sounds of voices gradually turning into sentences, paired with the audio recordings of the children.

The children were recorded from infancy to the age of about five. I played samples of these recordings on a MIDI keyboard using Ableton Live software. It was a challenge to play human elements such as the sound of a baby’s breathing and the delicate clicking of its tongue on an instrument of plastic without the celebrated tactile sensitivity of the grand piano. It was also difficult to play with one hand on the piano keys or inside the piano and the other on the keyboard.

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From the premiere of at the tips of my fingers / on the tip of my tongue Ensemble Allegria, Berit Cardas, Ellen Ugelvik 16.4.2015 

Photo: Millimedia

It is thrilling to work with new computer programs. Abilities to deal with digital tools are necessary for performers of contemporary music since many composers are mixing acoustic and electronic sounds in the compositions. Achieving digital literacy is interesting insofar as it represents a different way of working with sound; you can’t ‘touch’ the sound and change it in the same way you would by physically touching an acoustic instrument. Working with electronics is often time-consuming and requires a different kind of proficiency of practitioners. It is a bit like learning to play a new instrument. It requires a high level of technical mastery of the electronics to sustain the composition and, as a trained player of acoustic instruments, you need to develop a sense of how acoustic instruments must adapt to the way the electronic sounds play out in the performance space via a PA system. Just as acoustic grand pianos differ from hall to hall, the same is true of course of different types of keyboards and PA systems.

The computer can be a considerable challenge for a pianist, since composers like to make use of different programs in the compositional process, meaning that experience gained in one piece may be irrelevant to another. Moreover, electronics have a habit of saving their worst failures for the live performance situation. Unforeseen problems and crashes have occurred countless times in my career, often on the moments before or even during a public performance, as at a concert in Bologna in 2013.

One of the main challenges I faced with at the tips of my fingers/on the tip of my tongue was getting the sampled and acoustic material to work successfully together. In my interpretation of the soloist’s part, I wanted the children’s voices to merge into the sound world of the piano timbre when I played the two instruments at the same time. I did not want their voices to lie ‘on top’ of the overall soundscape; instead, I wanted the two ‘instruments’ to melt together. This can be difficult because the piano produces a percussive sound. I, therefore, needed to adjust the dynamics of the written part.  At some points, I also needed to adjust the pedal markings to make the sound of the piano more expansive, to try to avoid the piano’s inherent percussive quality by playing some of the tones with the middle pedal or sustain pedal depressed and allowing this background sound to resonate audibly.

The samples had different sound levels and quality, so when I played some of the chords it all sounded very rough. At times, I needed to adjust the dynamics of each tone in a chord to get the chordal quality I was looking for.

The touch of piano keys is very different from the touch of the keys of a synthesizer. Sometimes I had to add some rhythmical values to the score to get the same length and singing quality to merge with the piano sound. The samples also had a certain latency that I needed to consider so as to get them to play ‘in time’ with my own piano playing.

Playing material on a synthesiser demands the skill of playing the piano to make the samples work in a performance situation, to get them to sound like musical material. It is not a matter of ‘depressing a key.' In the case of at the tips of my fingers / at the tip of my tongue I added articulations to the score to integrate the samples into the musical setting. In other words, the samples also need performance instructions and activating them needs to be considered as much of an artistic act as playing a conventional instrumental.

Building trust and ownership 

In my project, I am interested in how composers give autonomy to the performers. To what degree does a composer trust the soloist’s taste and preferences? What is the effect of giving the soloist a certain amount of freedom or, conversely, of keeping the soloist on a short leash? In what way does freedom, or lack of it, imprint itself in the scores? Since the birth of the piano concerto genre, the cadenza has been the place where the soloist is permitted – indeed required – to put her fingerprints and distinctive stamp on the work. It is often the ‘golden moment’ the audience has been waiting for, where the virtuosities and creativity of the soloist are put to the test. In many contemporary piano concerti, the cadenza is omitted. The reasons differ, but sometimes it seems composers want to be in control of everything, and are afraid of what kind of strange ideas the pianists might introduce in the piece. Thorsen, on the other hand, gave me a completely open cadenza to work with.

In addition to the cadenza, Thorsen also includes passages with free spacing. These passages inspired me to listen with extra care. In turn, I felt the composer’s trust in me, which helped us to build a mutual sense of ownership of the work.

When I was going to work with the orchestra for the first time, this sense of ownership resulting from my co-creative role became particularly clear. The intimate knowledge of the music I had achieved ended up creating a distance between me and the other musicians. I had a stronger connection to the work and the composer than I have ever felt before when playing other piano concerti. The leader or the orchestra referred to my part as ‘Ellen.' My identity was closely linked to the music; I became the voice of the piano, I was the sounds of the children. This was accompanied by a feeling of immense responsibility for the composition and a feeling of being outside the orchestra. 

I felt that many in the orchestra had distanced them from me and the music. There may be several reasons for this. Some might have found the recordings of the children ethically dubious. The electronic parameters may have seemed strange and complex. Ensemble Allegria is a young ensemble, and their principal interest is in canonical music. Did they feel alienated by the aesthetics and notation, perhaps? The ensemble also had an external leader/concertmaster for this particular concert, and it was not the ensemble that had commissioned the work. The orchestra’s music may have looked easy to play to each of the musicians, judging by their parts. They did not need to spend much time rehearsing their parts individually and, consequently, did not anticipate needing a great deal of time working on the music in collective rehearsal. The first part of the piano concerto consists, in the orchestral section, of small fragments played using mutes. Unless these fragments are practised together, the incredibly precise, delicate effect will never be achieved. The fragments need sufficient energy for the fainter sounds to travel, and the musicians all need to know exactly where and how their contribution fits into the architecture of the piece as a whole. They also need to know how the fragments and the sounds of the children are intertwined in the creation of the soundscape. Because Thorsen had given each member of the orchestra their part in this piano concerto, they performed virtually as soloists in many passages, not just as members of a group of instruments. Every musician was thus responsible for their part of the fragmented whole. In the event, the fragments were never quite as precise as desired and came across as unstable and incoherent. I wondered whether the allotted rehearsal time for at the tips of my fingers/on the tip of my tongue had been cut because these fragments never really fell perfectly into place. 

As a soloist in a piano concerto, I want to ‘extemporise’ together with the orchestra and conductor I am working with at the time. I want us to have the same conception of the music and be ready to respond to each other when we play. I have a vivid memory of a concert given by the pianist Martha Argerich at the Concertgebouw in 1998, while I was studying in Amsterdam. She played Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the conductor Riccardo Chailly. The Concertgebouw was filled to the rafters, and I had got a seat on the lowest rung of the choir stalls behind the orchestra. From there I could follow Argerich’s raven-black eyes as she challenged every one of the musicians throughout the piano concerto. She looked only rarely at the conductor, concentrating instead on the musicians themselves, requiring by her very presence and unpredictable playing that they had to know the work so well that they could lift their eyes from the notes and play with her directly, letting the work become new on this particular night. Her expression compelled them to give as much as they could during the performance. It was an unusually raw and unforgettable concert that vibrated with energy. 

This sort of approach would have been impossible for the soloist in the premiere of the piano concerto at the tips of my fingers / on the tip of my tongue. Nobody in the orchestra knew the soloist’s part or, for that matter, knew much more about their position in the musical material. I made several suggestions to the musicians and conductor to add cue notes from the solo part to help them align themselves to the parts played by me. I suggested improvising together over the samples so that everyone had the same aural idea of the children’s sounds. But my suggestions were not given priority and, in consequence, I had to align myself with the orchestra during the performance. The result was the exact opposite of the traditional conception of the soloist’s role as a free and spontaneous. 

I had to adopt an accompanying role I know well from working with singers and playing complex chamber pieces where the other musicians are unfamiliar with the piano part. In such cases, the pianist sits with the full score and thus have to adapt, in part, to what the other musicians are playing and make sure the musicians come together again if they get lost by something unpredictable happening along the way. This role can limit the pianist’s contribution. Performances like these are often imprecise and characterised by latency. 

I was acutely aware at the premiere of at the tips of my fingers / on the tip of my tongue that I would have to accentuate the solo part and my body language to counter the latency that naturally occurs when not everyone concerned is sufficiently familiar with the work. When I see and listen to the recording of the piano concerto, I think I succeeded to a certain extent, although I remember the sense I had of myself not being able to play freely. The music sounds good, and the composition seems very original and communicative, but it lacks the energy and precision one expects of a performance in which everyone involved helps build a common understanding of the music in that particular setting.



a) If possible, negotiate with the conductor and orchestra to ensure adequate rehearsal time for a new work, bearing in mind the tendency to underestimate how long it may take to assemble an unfamiliar piece from its components, even one where the individual parts are not, in themselves, especially demanding. If there is some rough recording of the overall piece (e.g. using synthesised sounds), offer this to the orchestra as an aid to individual preparatory rehearsal. Do everything you can to avoid the sense where, at the start of the first collective rehearsal, there is a cognitive distance separating you from all the other performers. At the same time, recognise that this may be impossible and therefore ensure that you have covered the remaining points as a realistic fall-back strategy. 

b) The orchestra may not know what you are going to play as a soloist. They may not, therefore, follow you as they would in a canonical piano concerto. The result is that you may end up in a reverse soloist role. Prepare to have to ‘run after’ the orchestra or accompany it. Learn the orchestra’s parts as well as possible so that you know what they’re going to do. Look for passages that give you freedom as a soloist and take those opportunities whenever they arise. 

c) Prepare to present a very precise physical posture and body language to the orchestra and leader/conductor. You are probably the musician in that context who knows the work better than anyone else. The orchestral musicians are highly experienced in using rehearsal time efficiently, and what you convey through your playing and body language often becomes their very first aesthetic approach to the composition. Try to make eye contact with individual musicians, show them that you know their parts. 

d) Be prepared to take responsibility for carrying the new work with which you have developed a sense of ownership or have commissioned. The work is not quality assured for the other musicians, institutions, and audience in the same way as canonical piano concerti, and as a soloist, you will be strongly identified with the music. Your attitude and manner should express a strong sense of confidence in the composition and a strong determination to inspire the musicians of the orchestra to do their utmost, even when the music seems easy to play. 

e) Calculate extra rehearsal time for yourself if electronics are involved in a composition. Ask the composer to use a particular software (e.g. Ableton Live) in their composition (or hire an experienced professional to translate the composer’s program into the software you have learned to use). Add these extra costs into the commission application.

© Ellen Kristine Ugelvik | go to top

If I felt that something in the material was not working (for example, if there was too little time to prepare for an action to be executed inside the piano) or the sounds were too indistinct, we made changes by my abilities and suggestions. Thorsen willingly shared her notes and thoughts throughout the process.

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Composer Erik Dæhlin and Ellen Ugelvik in a workshop on PØL PØL LØP  from 22.12.2015 

Photo: Tanja Orning

Photo: Kristine Tjøgersen

Ellen Ugelvik | Pianist