It’s Saturday – writing day in my world. (In between running errands and doing “mom” things like taking my daughter for her driver’s knowledge test this morning.) On top of that, it’s raining – and has been for two days – after a few days of record-high temperatures. Thirty degrees Celsius on May 3rd (a rare high temperature) caused rapid snow melt in the mountains, high runoff in creeks and streams, and mudslides that blocked roads. Today the Kootenay River is muddy from the runoff, said my husband. It’s a cool, cloudy, rainy and moody day, and this album felt perfect. (Meanwhile: the Globe and Mail reports Alberta has declared a state of emergency due to the forest fires, and tens of thousands of people there have been evacuated. Surreal.)
Today’s playlist is a piano recital album entitled Echoes of China: Contemporary Piano Music. Pianist Susan Chan performs the works of several composers: Zhou Long, Doming Lam, Alexina Louie, Tan Dun, and Chen Yi. The album is published by Naxos.
Listen here: https://www.naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=8.570616
Find it on the Apple Classical app here: https://classical.music.apple.com/ca/album/1015064818
The album includes the four pieces of Music For Piano by Alexina Louie. This week in the SFU The Writer’s Studio program, one of our assignments was to write a response to a piece of music that we find challenging to listen to. I chose to interpret this not as something I don’t like listening to (which was my initial interpretation – always read the assignment at least twice!) but as something that challenges me to try harder and throws back at me my lack of success: Alexina Louie’s Music For Piano. What follows is not the assignment I turned in but a reflection on it.
The piano was one of my first artistic loves. I started taking lessons at age 4, and at first, all I did was hide under my teacher’s grand piano. My mother was determined that I should learn, and I’m glad she pushed me to do it. It’s not that I became a concert pianist – I did not – it’s that the knowledge of music expanded my horizons, brought additional emotional context to my life, and added an extra dimension to my enjoyment of other art forms. It encouraged me to persevere, to be self-disciplined, and to stretch my capabilities.
My teacher challenged me with many different pieces and genres, which is typical for a conservatory piano program. The piano music of Alexina Louie is one of the challenges he presented me with, insisting I buy her music book “Music For Piano” when I was a teenager. It is modern or contemporary piano music – it does not adhere to classical forms, takes risks with tempo, meter, form, and sound, yet gives precise instruction to the musician on how to play and interpret the music. You may only take liberties where noted. My first piece was (I think) Distant Memories, which does not give a time signature for the first very long measure, then changes to 6/8 time, then 4/8, then 6/8, then 5/8… the score intimidates me. My teacher insisted I try to play it without hearing it first. From then on, I entered into a love/hate relationship with Alexina Louie’s piano pieces.
The struggle! It was excruciating at times to learn these pieces that did not follow the predictable chord progressions or key signatures or time signatures. Each measure required thorough reading and deft fingerwork. It was exactly the challenge I needed, knocking my ego down repeatedly. To produce such a gorgeous, textured sound! If I managed it, it was a triumph. More often, I missed the mark.
I’ve returned to this set of pieces over the years, attempting them again, loving them, and becoming frustrated at my limitations. I have yet to learn the last piece (Once Upon A Time). I think it’s time to warm up my hands.
By the way, Alexina Louie is a Canadian composer. You can read more about her here: http://www.alexinalouie.ca/