Practische Beispiele

Practische Beispiele


In the project The soloist in contemporary piano concerti, I explore what a soloist is and can be, and what distinguishes the soloist’s role in brand new piano concerti, in relation to the role of the soloist performing pre-existing works. I seek to develop a way of being and a mindset in which every work I play is approached as a performer-specific work and to explore the outcome of this progressive soloist role which forms the core of the project. In what ways can I be said to have a co-creative role in the processes of creating new works with a composer and what are the ramifications for the performer of such a role? How can I highlight or accentuate different facets of this co-creative process so that they can be used by others?


In the following text, I describe the work I undertook preparing pieces for piano solo in parallel with my work on the piano concerti. These solo works are included in the project because, in as much as their scores lack performance directions, they also, by definition, require the role and mindset of the performer to be that of a co-creating musician. I ask whether it is possible to apply the same sort of approach to works composed in 1803 (Practische Beispiele no 3 and 23) and 2012 (Lyriske stykker by Christian Blom) respectively and study the resulting outcomes.


Lyriske stykker - Lyrical Pieces 


Lyrical Pieces for piano solo by my husband, the composer Christian Blom, were the result of a commission to mark the centenary of Edvard Grieg’s death in 1907. Invited to create a work for radio based on Grieg’s music, Christian selected Butterfly from Grieg’s Lyrical Pieces in Grieg’s 1906 version. Christian had Grieg’s wax cylinders converted into a Midi file at Spencer’s E-rolls. 1 This allowed him to work on timings and volume in Grieg’s performance by applying the midi files to an algorithm, a sort of digital scrambler software that he made for the project. To play the music, Christian created a sampler consisting of recordings he and I had made of every single note played on an old piano in an Oslo piano shop.

After the premiere of the radio work, Christian continued to experiment with several of Grieg’s Lyrical Pieces, using the same scrambler algorithm and the same samples. I suggested making acoustic piano versions of the same compositions. Finale was used to translate the midi files into notation and, with some additional work, the notation became legible scores. I premiered the first movement of the piano cycle at a house concert in Madonna’s former residence in Beverly Hills in Los Angeles in 2012. Christian and I decided to make an LP with two versions of the compositions. Side A would be of me playing an acoustic piano, and side B the sampler.


Several research projects have interrogated Grieg’s performance aesthetics, including, for example, that of pianist Sigurd Slåttebrekk and producer Tony Harrison in their project Tracing the Butterfly. 2  Their aim was to reproduce Grieg’s playing technique and style as accurately as possible in Slåttebrekk’s hands by ‘copying’ Grieg’s wax cylinder recordings. By playing ‘just like Grieg,' Slåttebrekk could play music Grieg never recorded himself; although necessarily speculative, this procedure gives us an intriguing idea of how Grieg might have played works other than those preserved on the cylinders. It is delightful to hear Grieg and Slåttebrekk play; the music swings, and it is exciting to follow the free timing in relation to the score. Slåttebrekk’s role as the performer is also fascinating even if it represents the complete opposition to my quest to expand the role of the pianist.


Returning to Christian’s score, at first glance it recalls a so-called early music score in which the performer chooses tempo and dynamics. The score is stripped of performance directions – unlike Grieg’s score from 1886. Of the other composer’s whose works are included in this project, Magne Hegdal has also used an open score approach extensively, in his piano solo cycle Herbarium II.

Christian’s Lyrical Pieces were composed for me, and I was the first performer to play the acoustic compositions. Somewhat paradoxically, my only references as to the interpretation of the works are Grieg’s recording from 1906; nonetheless, the most tangible reference to Christian’s Lyrical Pieces is the computer versions of those compositions - side B side on the LP release. 

These circumstances gave me considerable interpretative freedom. When preparing the pieces, I experimented in all directions. I kept close to the data versions and played with as much rhythmic precision as possible, without varying dynamics or articulation. I also looked at what happened when I played in the exact opposite mode, weaving long lines and experimenting with rubato, timbre, and articulation in a ‘Romantic’ style. Inspired by Grieg’s recording, I tried to imagine how Grieg would have played Christian’s music. This flexibility is a real gift, being part of a long pianistic tradition and being able to experiment with this rich seam of knowledge in a new work. The possibilities are seemingly endless.

The context in which the music takes place is crucial to how I chose to play the music on the recording. The composer and I had several discussions; Christian did not want me to ‘interpret too much,' but did not accurately explain what he meant by this. Other composers have expressed similar wishes; they don’t want ‘to much humanity or personality’ in the interpretations: ‘just play what’s in the score,' even though their scores are open and invite interpretation. I wanted my versions on side A to seethe with life, but not so much as to ‘drown’ the more static, mechanical versions on side B. I wanted sides A and B to ‘talk to each other.'


I am always looking to strike a balance. Where do the boundaries go between ‘to much’ and ‘to little’ humanity or personality in a performance? I know myself best and know what I can bring to the performance. But what is an accurate balance between the acoustic piano versions and the computer versions, between Grieg and Christian? I think of my role as that of a curator; it is my business to decide how I balance the human element and the mechanical, how I balance what I play so that I give listeners an opportunity to engage directly in discovering relationships and connections. If I’m ‘too upfront’ or explicit, listeners will not need to get involved, and if my playing is too obscure or lacking in interest, they may lose their focus and stop listening.

Commenting on my interpretation, composer Clemens Gadenstätter (2013) writes in the preface to the LP booklet: ‘The seemingly frigid text is returned to the hands of the pianist, whose interpretative logic lets the body back into the mechanisms, warms up the ice floes – but without turning them into water: warm ice, pulsating rigidity, meaty iron.’

There were some interesting responses from others as well:


Brittle, choppy, arrogant and open delivery. Music in conversation with past and present, humanity and mechanics. … There are five pieces in all. They are short, played twice, first by a living human being, afterwards by a machine. The sound of the machine is a sampled version of the sound of Grieg playing. Ellen Ugelvik embarks on a conversation with past and present as the human dimension of the piece. She is also in dialogue with the mechanical in its material and alongside the sampler. She plays simply, highlights details, shows us that not only is this strange, but it is also playful. It is fascinating to hear the same piece – interpreted and de-interpreted in a way.’  (Habbestad, 2014: 11, my translation)

Another reviewer put it like this:


Like pearls on a string. Clearest is possibly the relationship between Grieg’s original pieces and Blom’s adaptations. You might not know the originals but the tonality, and to some degree, the dramaturgy, are reflected in Blom’s versions. Also, a distance emerges between the computer version’s mechanical and machine-like timbres and the piano version’s acoustic expression. Thanks to pianist Ellen Ugelvik, who is genuinely involved and achieves a supreme balance between the mellow piano timbres and the clacking mechanical interjections, the piano versions shine like small pearls. 


The most interesting thing is possibly the unlikely way in which Blom’s mechanical approach, which is almost the opposite of what you might expect, intervenes in and recreates the lyrical element. It’s as if Blom turns Grieg’s snippets on their head, inserts them into a space where they can suddenly transmute into objects – hesitant, unfinished objects that can be worked on, like a sculptor in his studio.


This gives them a kind of permanence beyond themselves, and maybe this is precisely the lyrical quality of the machine – in that its automation can give tangible expression to the seemingly endless process one imagines precedes any fixed interpretation. (Bernhardt, 2014, my translation)


Christian’s Butterfly was chosen to be part of the repertoire of the International Grieg Competition in Bergen in 2016. 3 I was looking forward to hearing Christian’s responses to new, interesting interpretations by pianists from other parts of the world on the basis of the open score. But after listening to the performances in Bergen, Christian reports being disappointed. The performances of Butterfly were found to be too slow and dynamics and articulation only vague and tentative, the music more or less disintegrating as a result. It was as if the performers had not quite made up their minds about their role as co-creators, they had not assumed a progressive mindset which would have allowed them to take charge of the musical material despite the ‘lack’ of notational detail.

Playing old music


I brought the experience of working on Lyrical Pieces and of reading the reviews with me to my next assignment, the preparation of recording two solo pieces by the composer Anton Reicha: Practische Beispiele no. 3 Allegro non troppo and no. 23 Adagio molto. The Reicha pieces are included on the CD Ellen Ugelvik plays Magne Hegdal & Anton Reicha, where Hegdal’s piano concerto Concert Piece in three sections figures as the centrepiece. Hegdal quotes Reicha directly in the piano concerto’s second movement with a chord phrase of six bars. Hegdal made a handwritten copy of Reicha’s music to make it easier for me to study. Reicha and his radical compositions have long been an inspiration to Hegdal, and since Reicha is quoted in the Hegdal concerto, Hegdal suggested including Reicha on the release as an attractive context for his music. Thus Reicha also figures on the margins of the research project.

Like Christian’s Lyrical Pieces, these pieces collected in Reicha’s Practische Beispiele come without performance instructions, apart from the titles of the individual movements. How to approach these pieces, therefore, invite for an interesting comparison to Christian’s work. I like the phrases from the review in Aftenposten: ‘hesitant and unfinished objects that can be worked on’ and, in a way, ‘interpreted and de-interpreted.'

Being a performer of contemporary music, I am used to rendering a score very precisely. I like cultivating precision and complex structures, and not adjust the material for the purpose of making the listening experience easier or even out extremes. My position is close to the one described by Ian Pace when he writes about how performances of Lachenmann’s Serynade must avoid the simplistic opposition of modernist fragmentation and traditionalist homogenisation of details

(Such) Aesthetic issues are of great importance to performers of the work seeking an alternative to the false dichotomy often proffered in terms of performance practice: between a ‘modernistic’ approach on one hand (emphasising disjunction between all elements to the maximum, resisting all sense of line and above all, free from any stylistic baggage obtained from older practices) or a ‘musicianly’ approach on the other (foregrounding to the maximum all aspects of the music that resonate with earlier traditions, avoiding terrifyingly loud or ear-stretching soft dynamics, finding ways of creating continuity and some degree of seamlessness even when presented by violent oppositions between material types, thus containing the musical experience within manageable boundaries). These are caricatured positions, perhaps, but nonetheless seem to have a fair amount of truth in them.’ (Pace, 2005: 102)

Pace could be read as saying that extremes in (these uninformed!) interpretations can ‘suppress’ listeners’ reflections. By steering listeners towards extremes in interpretation lacking in nuances and subtlety, one reduces their opportunity to get involved in the work by their means and enable only a one-dimensional listening experience rather than one based on self-conscious reflection. Working on the Practische Beispiele, these ideas are with me as I deliberately search for extremes to recognise them in my playing.

I use the same approach to prepare Practische Beispiele as I did with Lyrical Pieces, i.e., by experimenting with degrees of freedom and deliberate changes of focus. I play with extreme rhythmic precision and from there move into a free landscape, and experiment with timbre, timing, tempo, and articulation. I approach the extremes of the dichotomy described by Pace and consider how to balance the interpretation of the music without being trapped at on end of this spectrum. Since I prepare the Reicha for a recording situation only and not for performance, I also try to be sensitive to the context in which it will be presented – or rather the context it will serve accompanying Hegdal’s concerto. How can I best manage events in the music, where should the dynamic balance go between Reicha and Hegdal? What should I say about Hegdal through Reicha and vice versa?

I know Hegdal’s music well having previously given several concerts featuring his music. I have been fascinated by his distinctive approach to aleatoric composition. 4 Rather than composing music, Hegdal says it ‘comes to him.' In his view

‘music doesn’t turn the composer into a typical creative artist, nor does the sound of the music make it expressive or personal. Hegdal seeks a kind of expression that is as unruly and as exuberant as life itself, and this put him in a particular position. Hegdal created the structure behind the works, and then lets the ‘fall of the dice’ decide the outcome: Chance procedures turn the composer, and the listeners too, into the recipient of the music.’ (Ugelvik, 2004, my translation)

Sitting at my computer writing words, the same applies here too. I begin with a preconception of what I am going to write, but then something else pops up in my mind that leads me in a new direction but without completely losing the sense of my previous intentions. Discipline and spontaneity interact in a kind of dance. It’s nice to think that way about playing as well. I enjoy practising - playing a piece or passage over and over again and sensing other things emerging, different from what I had initially set my mind to.

Ma non troppo

I take a few lessons with early music expert, Liv Glaser. I play on instruments from Reicha’s time, feel how sensitive they are to varieties of touch, how they have less body than a modern concert grand. I’m thinking about recording the Reicha pieces on an old instrument, but feel the relationship between Reicha and Hegdal would be clearer if I used the same instrument. Glaser shows me how to let phrases and passages in Reicha’s Adagio molto breathe by breaking chords and double dotting rhythms. She talks about rhetoric and gestures; we experiment with the rhythmic ambiguity of the opening: there are so many possibilities, is it best to divide the bars into four or six? Glaser is great – she encourages me to do what I think works, make alterations by allowing myself, for example, to drop repetitions in Allegro non troppo as the movement feels too long, at least for a CD recording.

I know from experience that choices made in a recording situation have to be even clearer than choices made in a concert setting so as to successfully negotiate the journey through the stereo setup. When listening to a recording, the visual impression of the pianist is missing, and listeners lack one of the parameters by which they receive and process the music.

I decide to play Adagio molto in a clear four-beat rhythm in the opening bar, but I try to mask the beat from there on by pulling my left hand back slightly in volume. The runs and adornments in the right hand fly and breathe, but I ‘stamp on the brakes’ because I want to mask any impression of ancient perfume; I minimise my playing to allow the listeners to shape the music for themselves; I want to activate my listeners through my playing. I emphasise small fragments, build brief phrases, explore dynamic spaces between ppp and mp. I want the first part to be pliable, but not overmuch.

After the first part, I want to create an extreme contrast; I slow the tempo down to accentuate a mumbling, increasingly insistent stamping, a section that forms in reverse, slowly, stone by stone. Then, attention turns to the quotation section, a replica inserted into Hegdal’s piano concerto. I pick my way towards the section, let myself get carried away, increase the intensity, accelerate, land, hammer these bars out. Fourteen minutes to go before the section is repeated in the piano concerto; I want listeners to remember this section!

Afterwards, I let my fingers run wild in the rapid passage foreshadowing my cadenza in the piano concerto, ending with an upward run in a dazzlingly fast tempo, an attempt to play as virtuoso as possible on a grand piano. I round off the Adagio molto by contrasting the seeking, scrutinising ambience with which the piano concerto opens the next track. I hammer, brake as hard as possible, open the floodgates: Here it comes!!!

Practische Beispiele no. 23 Adagio molto by Anton Reicha. Ellen Ugelvik, piano. Aurora ACD5089

In the course of the disc, Allegro non troppo by Reicha is an intermezzo after the piano concerto and splits the CD into two parts. After Allegro non troppo follows the solo cycle Songs and Flowers by Hegdal. The Allegro movement is fantastic fun with its five-eighth beat, radical for its time in Western music. I try reinforcing the time signature by creating ‘confusion’ by reversing the tempo markings, by creating sudden, abrupt passages rather than going for the extended line. The way I play Reicha’s music is similar to the way I play Hegdal’s music: I reinforce the material, lift it slightly or play it by overemphasising its ‘straightforwardness’; I’m in charge of the occasion. I let Reicha’s movement be ‘fussed’ with, avoid letting it ‘swing’ too much. I make sharp sounds, intense fractures, leaving timing a little shaky, sometimes heavy. The point is to make Songs and Flowers swing! I perform Reicha’s music abruptly and angularly to highlight the flow in Hegdal’s music.

In the process, I underestimate Hegdal’s sense of ownership of Reicha. On the day that the Reicha pieces were recorded, I wanted to work alone with the producer without Hegdal being present. When the first edit was finished, Hegdal was not at all pleased with how I interpreted Adagio molto and had particular misgivings about the part where I accelerate up to the section quoted in the piano concerto. I realise that Hegdal had wanted me to share my interpretations with him, with me telling him what I thought before I did the recording. Feeling much is at stake with Reicha’s reputation, Hegdal is determined not to let Reicha sound like a second-rate composer on this release. I react with offence at Hegdal’s hostile attitude, which I take as an offence against my artistic credentials. Additionally, there are two mistakes in the recording of Allegro non troppo. I had made a reading mistake in one place, and another error had slipped into the handwritten copy of the piece given to me by Hegdal during the period of preparation. The producer and production manager intervenes and takes sides with me on the issue of interpretation. However, in the end, I finally decide to go back to the studio and correct the two mistakes, but the interpretation of Adagio molto stands. It does hurt a bit.


a) Be prepared to be decisive and clear in your choices when interpreting open scores; you bear responsibility for the composition’s total expression to an even greater degree than with scores containing extensive performance instructions. Open scores give you a great deal of freedom to play the composition in different ways based on the context in which the music will be performed. Seize the opportunity to get to grips with the performance setting as a whole every time you play the composition. 

b) Be aware that other people involved may have their strong sense of ownership in the general context of the music. Be ready to talk about things you thought were exclusively ‘yours’ and be ready to back up your decisions with reasons and arguments and based on the role you adopt in a particular context. Try to clarify your capacities as a pianist and learn how to communicate your expertise.

c) Prepare a response to the statement ‘only play what’s written’ that frequently occurs in reference to new music without performance instructions. Ask composers to explain what they mean by this in relation to a score that takes a relatively spare approach to specifying how it should be played. Tell them what you feel about different elements in the score: the expressive cues that you find in it (even when not notated); aspects that make it harder to perform the work, whether in terms of what is written or what is missed out; and, above all the challenge to the performer of trying to create the impression the composer wants when also needing to bring something of themselves to the table, given the absence of performance instructions. Come to an agreement with the composer that ensures that he/she can set aside more time beyond the original deadline to do some co-creative work on the score as it moves towards its first performance. 

d) Learn to recognise opportunities in recording situations and how these cases differ from concert settings. Be prepared to ‘go the extra mile’ in the recording situation and to take risks. Be clear about what you need regarding feedback in this type of situation – from sound engineers, producers and, where possible, the composers themselves – to be able to experiment and take action informed by this input but, ideally, with your creative autonomy being given space to function. 


e) Be prepared for some occasions where others do not see your role and your autonomy in the same way as you do. Recognise the subtle but persistent hierarchies that exist between composer and performer.  See these as a field of negotiation, and your role as one of contributing to their evolution towards a more enlightened balance.

© Ellen Kristine Ugelvik | go to top

Butterfly - played by Ellen Ugelvik

Butterfly - computer version

PDF of midifile score

Ellen Ugelvik | Pianist