Friday, 2 December 2011

Social listening

Chamber music inspires me. As compared to a full orchestra I love the relative simplicity of only a few instruments playing together. But most of all the context in which chamber music was conceived and performed originally influences how I think about my own piano performances. In the 19th century friends and family tended to play music together and for each other. Whether they played a song without words by Mendelssohn, one of Schubert’s Lieder or a violin sonata by Schumann, they took turns in making music.

This is a far cry from the way in which we appreciate chamber music nowadays. Rather than attending a formal concert by a professional musician in which each listener quietly appreciates the music, 19th-century chamber music was performed by amateur musicians in people's living rooms. The appreciation of chamber music was highly social as those attending happily discussed the music and other issues. I’d like to think of this as social listening. What’s more, the distinction between performer and audience was blurred as musicians took turns in performing for each other.

What inspires me most of all, however, is the kind of music being played. To cater for the skilled amateurs who played chamber music, composers wrote chamber music in a less complex style. Personally I find the simple textures more powerful than the sometimes complex and virtuosic textures of music written for the concert stage. In concert stage music a lot of things tend to happen at once, requiring listening more than once to appreciate the full complexity of the music. The clarity of expression in for example Mendelssohn’s songs without words tends to move me much more - and right from the first time I hear it.

Taking inspiration from chamber music, I prefer to perform piano music that is easier to listen to, in informal settings where there is space for talking in between and during the music. On 6 December I’ll provide background music for an event celebrating art work in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and on 10 January I’ll play piano during a music-in-the-cafe session at Newton Dee.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

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