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Sally Whitwell's singular quest for imperfection

Features - Classical Music

Sally Whitwell's singular quest for imperfection

by Clive Paget on September 27, 2013 (September 27, 2013) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
From Glass to Nyman, the über-Gothic Princess of the Piano corsets-up to talk about her latest album.

Easy questions to start with. All Imperfect Things, how did you choose the title?

It’s kind of like how pop albums have a title track. And I thought it would be dull to call it just “Solo Piano Music” so I thought what’s the track that sums up what I do the best (laughs) and I thought, “well I never claimed to be perfect,” so All Imperfect Things seemed excellent. And it’s also that post-modern thing because some of it’s old music but not played the way that you’re meant to play old music.

You did an Aria Award-winning Philip Glass album a couple years ago. Was Michael Nyman the next logical step for you?

Yes, actually. I’ve always really admired his soundtracks and for most people that’s how they come to Nyman, and The Piano in particular. In the history of movie soundtracks that score is the only one that I can think of that characterises a person so deeply through the music. It’s so central to her personality. And because she is a woman at a particular time the story resonated with me on a variety of levels, musically and politically I suppose.

Glass and Nyman both get lumped into the minimalist basket. Are those kinds of definitions useful and how do they differ as composers?

Oh they differ greatly. I know that Michael Nyman coined the term minimalism but it wasn’t a thing that he set out to make a great fanfare about. It was just a word that he used that people latched onto tand made into a buzz word. I know Philip Glass doesn’t really subscribe to that label. So labels ‘schmabels’ – it doesn’t seem important to me.

It seems to me that Glass is much purer in the minimalistic sense than someone like Nyman. In something like The Draughtman’s Contract there’s a Purcell aria that goes over the top but the only thing that’s minimal about it is the motor rhythm underneath.

Yeah, and there are lots of things that have motor rhythms underneath them that are not minimalist. It was really interesting meeting Mr. Glass and talking about his etudes. When you see the Beethoven sonatas laid out, you see the whole trajectory of his creative life summed up really neatly. In the same way, these piano études sum up Mr. Glass’s oeuvre from then ‘til now. In the beginning, a lot of the pieces I recorded on the Mad Rush album are quintessential minimalist (if you want to use the term). They’re essentially the same thing lots and lots of times. But look at the things that he’s writing now in the last three etudes – they’re really romantic and quite chromatic and they’re constantly changing. Maybe not so much in the texture, but the harmonies are always changing. It’s always moving somewhere new, and that’s considerably different to what he was doing 30 or 40 years ago.

You’ve chosen quite a wide range of Nyman’s music across at least 30 years. Do you see a similar progression in his musical development?

Many of the pieces that I’ve chosen are of a particular time and written for a particular genre. They’re film music where there’s a particular brief from the director. But as well as that I love Michael Nyman’s operas, particularly The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and Man and Boy. They are extraordinary pieces but they’re really quite different in style. And the string quartets of course as well.

Nyman is often closely associated with that sort of amplified “Baroque ‘n Roll” kind of thing. Famously he had the Michael Nyman band when the music was first coming out. What effect do you think it has going back to solo piano?

Well he is a pianist. That’s his instrument so that’s where he writes and he orchestrates from that like a lot of pianist composers throughout history. It feels fairly logical therefore to go backwards. I compose quite a bit at the piano myself by improvising things, whacking the recorder on and then going back and notating by hand. Then I orchestrate them. So I’m really interested in the process. To go back and see how someone else has gone from the solo piano into this rock and roll orchestrated world or into Jane Campion’s lush, misty, Victorian world – it’s such an interesting process.

Nyman’s work can appear deceptively simply, especially the slow pieces. Is it? Or is it secretly super tricky?

Those simple things are actually really difficult to balance on a purely technical level. To balance some of those melodic lines with a really beautiful singing tone and to play the chords evenly takes great amounts of concentration. So yes, it’s actually really difficult to play – much more difficult than the faster, flashier things. You have a obvious method for practicing those, but this you’ve got to go back and think: “balance; weight; how far away are you from the keyboard; how high am I above it; is my body weight going to help me and how do I dig right down into the bottom of keys? All those little technical things – it’s very unforgiving actually.

It’s a great selection on the album – there are even a couple of tracks that he wrote for a computer game. How did you come across those?

I’ve played it! Enemy Zero was made for Sega Saturn which was the Gameboy for the ‘90s. I downloaded it for my computer. The music plays quite a big part. I don’t know if you’re a game but there are these mini movies, a few minutes long, which forward the action and take you to the thing that you need to do next. It’s in these mini-movies that Nyman’s music happens largely. The game is terrifying because as the title suggests the enemy is actually invisible. You have vague notions that it’s an ‘Alien the movie’ kind of situation. There’s a sound that happens as they come nearer. It starts quite low and the higher it gets the closer you know it is to you. When it’s really high, it’s directly in front of you. The best technique I’ve found is to spin around in a circle really fast and just shoot randomly. Hopefully it dies and then you see a little bit of an outline where it’s covered in blood – just the suggestion of what this terrifying creature might look like. I loved it.

Have you got something in mind for what you want to do next?

We haven’t talked about it but I do have a considerable amount of music that I’ve composed that I’d really like to get out there. I love writing. I love writing for choirs (I work a lot with Gondwana and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs) so I write quite a lot for voices. I feel the art song has a bit of an image problem at the moment. People think it’s stuffy recitalist fare but it’s an incredible art form. So that’s what I’d like to do. I just need to find the right partner in crime.

Sally Whitwell’s Michael Nyman album is out now on ABC Classics and reviewed in the November issue of Limelight.