I always find it interesting to read discussions on the validity of extended techniques and less conventional methods of sound production; perhaps occasionally – and naively – considered to be ‘gimmicks’, repertoire that exploits a broader pallette of sound production can offer insights not only in the possibilities of writing for particular instruments but also open the audiences’ ears to something new. The pianist Zubin Kanga (currently a research student at the Royal Academy of Music, London) gave a brave programme of piano works at Kings Place in February that gave a snapshot of the unending potential this instrument possesses.
Rolf Hind’s Towers of Silence (2006) opened the programme. Structured in five evocatively titled movements, this work literally extends the piano by having the pianist start at the pedals and progressively reach the keyboard by playing directly on the pedals, up the frame and eventually reaching the keyboard. Such a work could only be possible by a pianist of Rolf Hind’s virtuosic skill not only as a pianist but as a composer. As he writes “the five movements emerge from one another: after the percussive prelude and frenzy of the first two movements, via a lullaby (sleep now) there is increasing stasis and slower activity”. Pursuit is particularly frenzied, and was managed with considerable ease by Kanga, who demonstrated his skill in the logistics of this work in moving between the various methods of sound production with aplomb. What were particular beautiful were the harmonics which were executed with precision and delicacy. Claudia Molitor’s Tango (2007) made an intriguing contrast with the theatre of the pianist moving around the instrument and even launching himself on to it. Kanga did all of this with utmost poise and did much to sell the work, which literally was a dance between the pianist and the instrument.
Kanga gave the UK premiere of Sensitive Spot by Kate Moore, scored for solo piano and tapes (2009) as part of the programme. This work explores the slight variations between successive performances of the same piece by layering them up simultaneously, “pinpointing a musical phenomena that would normally be associated with error – the inability of any human to have an exact sense of metronomic timing.” Kanga played this with superb control and the interplay between the live and recordings made this a compelling concept.
The world premiere of Orfordness (2012) by David Gorton opened the second half of the concert and involved tapes of speech with live piano. This extended work in five movements demonstrated how well Kanga can perform seemingly complex material in such a way that makes the structure and intent of the work clear to the listener. There were some intriguing textures and the material seemed to flow well. It was Michael Finnissy’s Z/K (2012) that provided an effective contrast: another world premiere in the programme, and a piece that showed Finnissy’s compositional technique of appropriating material from the past and progressively unpacking it. This particular work featured regular disruptions to the flow, which Kanga made musical sense of enough to keep the intrigue to its conclusion.
The programme ended with the UK premiere of Alex Pozniak’s Interventions (2010). This is a follow up to a work the composer wrote for Kanga in 2008. The programme note for this work sounded very much like a recipe, yet gave a brief insight into the composer’s thinking for the shape of this piece. This made an entertaining close to the programme with page turner joining in as Kanga momentarily left the platform—clearly the page turner was a highly-skilled pianist himself! Interventions is a theatrical work that grew in intensity throughout and ended the programme well.
Zubin Kanga is clearly a pianist that revels in repertoire that seeks to exploit the inside and the outside of an instrument that continues to offer composers a wealth of sonic potential; with Kanga championing such repertoire one hopes more writing for the instrument will contemplate what the instrument offers beyond the 88 keys.
Steven Berryman is a composer and teacher working and living in London. Follow him on Twitter: @Steven_Berryman