About Co-operation Between Pianist and Composer

During the last few years I’ve had a pleasure to co-operate with pianist Eriko Takahashi in several projects. In this article I’ll introduce couple of them.

When first time hearing Eriko Takahashi playing in Vienna – she was giving premieres for two of my older, but still unperformed pieces – I was very satisfied with what I heard. As also she seemed to be interested in my musical language, right after the concert I already asked her if she’d be interested in a new project – a new piece written for her.

At that same time I was involved in one collaborative, experimental project, Academy of Artistic Thinking. From the literature we read within that project I had come across with different forms of children’s play, Agon, Alea, Mimicry, Ilinx, as described by French sociologist Roger Caillois, and which I found quite inspiring and suitable to be composed. I introduced this idea to the pianist, and since she was interested and willing to participate that kind of project, I started to make closer plans for the piece. The new work already got also its name quite early, Sandbox of Almach, Almach as a single star for a naked eye but quadruple star with powerful telescope would fit well for this playful work with four different characters.

I decided to write a piece with several movements without breaks between them, the idea which also corresponded well the thoughts of the pianist, she was very positive towards my suggestion for a large-scale work. At first I started to plan the different characteristics of each section. With Agon, Mimicry and Ilinx it was quite easy to find descriptions for them, but Alea was little trickier. I wasn’t interested to write phrases or sections which might or might not be played according to certain rule. But during discussions with the pianist it became clear that improvisation could be a possible solution. That gave me an idea of writing a base line like cantus firmus, and then just few instructions concerning material used for improvised layer on top of the base line, and when introducing this idea to the pianist, she was also satisfied with this.

Composing proceeded more or less according to the planned schedule. Always after having written few pages of new material, I sent them to the pianist and listened carefully to her comments, although there was no need to rewrite any sections, only to clarify notation in few places. She was also interested to hear my estimation about when the work might be ready, and when having that information, she already gave me the date of the premiere of the work, which would take place in Vienna in October 2020.

During the composing, our discussions were not limited only to the work to be composed. I learned many things about Japan and its culture, and I also told many things about Finland and typical features of its culture as well. And as one result of these discussions, I’ve also been glad to notice that many other Finnish compositions from several composers have appeared in her concert programs, as well as I’ve also played  few Japanese piano pieces in a concert – including couple of pieces written by Eriko, one of which was even successful in an international composition competition.

Finally the piece was completed, almost in original schedule. Thanks to our close co-operation, during which I could show her new material as it was completed, there was actually no need to make any bigger corrections during practicing period after it was completed, just to clarify few minor details. But about at the same time when I sent the complete score to the pianist, I also received a drawing based on this work from her.

Eriko Takahashi: Drawing after Sandbox of Almach
Published with permission of author

Later she wrote also an article about the work, its practicing process and making this drawing, the article was also published on her web page together with the drawing. Receiving the drawing and reading the article was also enlightening for me in that sense that after reading it I could also see my own work from a different point of view.

Before the premiere in Vienna, pianist sent me recordings made during practicing few times to be commented for guiding her with her preparing the work. Since already earlier we had discussed about the piece quite a lot, and also she had familiarized herself with my earlier works and she knew my music quite well, there was not much to be commented, already the first recording sounded very promising.

The only one, but even greater disappointment for me was that because of pandemic and quarantine regulations, I couldn’t be present in Vienna in that concert and first performance, like I had planned to be. The pianist had even chosen the whole theme of the concert, Die Spielzeugkasten, according to the new piece. But luckily the concert including Sandbox of Almach was streamed – and is still available in YouTube, so I could follow it from Finland. It was a great performance – as I had expected it to be – and being in the concert would have certainly been worth it.

A few months after the premiere in Vienna, I asked Eriko Takahashi if she still happened to have an interest for another work written for her. This time I had a preliminary idea about a work which would include more silent sounds – my earlier works had been quite virtuoso pieces. Actually the idea for this work had been born already during writing Sandbox of Almach, at some point I came across with an effect based on harmonics on piano, and wanted to use it somehow, but it didn’t quite fit to that piece because of their very different atmospheres, so I memorized it to be used later. And now the positive answer from the pianist offered a good possibility for that – especially when she managed to get Madetoja Foundation to support this project.

This time the work to be composed got the title Silence of Kharon. It mainly referred to the ferryman of river Styx in Greek mythology, but also to the largest moon of Pluto, Charon, which is undoubtedly very quiet place – and also named after ferryman Kharon.

This time we also had many discussions about the theme of the work, about different conceptions for life after death. At the same I was planning the overall structure for the work, which was based on alternating Kharon- and Silence-sections, each of them having their own character but building the one whole when combined together. Many ideas were born on the base of these discussions, which I found very fruitful way to work – also this time.

Silence of Kharon included also improvisation, the way to use it was quite similar with that in Sandbox of Almach, but their structural meaning was somewhat different. But the most obvious difference was the idea for striving towards the more and more quiet sounds of piano, and at the last section of the work, the idea which had had to wait so long, finally got its materialization.

Eriko Takahashi: Drawing after Silence of Kharon
Published with permission of author

All in all, the composing seemed to proceed faster than previous time, and quite soon also the date of premiere in Vienna in May 2022 was fixed. And also this time I received a drawing based on the work, from which I could recognize the character of the piece, but in the new light, same way than what happened with our previous project.

And finally came those warm days in Vienna, and a concert with a new work. Also this time the theme of the concert was connected to the new work, although not as directly. I was happy to have possibility to be present in Vienna, even if the concert was streamed also this time and magical performance of Silence of Kharon is likewise available in YouTube.

After the concert we had a meeting concerning our future plans. We both have had quite positive experience about this co-operation, and also to combine drawings with music is something we’d still like to continue. Few plans we already have, where drawings would be as a starting point for a new piece and have clearly a more important role than in our previous projects, but it will be explained more closely later when those plans are current and in progress. But these projects will continue – and develop at the same.

As a whole, these co-operations have been very pleasant and fruitful, not only for creating new works for piano or performances for them, but also we’ve learnt a lot of each other’s countries and cultures. Changing thoughts during process has given a broader insight also to my own work and lead to new ideas, and thus also to a development of own work. Many good reasons to go on and find out what will be learnt and done in the future.