September 16, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Nikolai Grozni's Wunderkind is a coming of age novel, an impressive fiction debut about a young pianist growing up in Bulgaria under strict Communist rule.
Grozni is the rare writer who has the ability to translate music, both its sound and the union of player and note, into words exceptionally well. His descriptions of classical music in the book are perfect foils for life under a totalitarian regime.
Chopin once told a student of his that "concerts are never real music; you have to give up the idea of hearing in them the most beautiful things of art." But if concerts aren't real music, then surely music recordings—stitched up in a claustrophobic environment after hundreds of false starts and bad takes—wouldn't be considered real music either. Besides, music recordings didn't even exist during Chopin's time. So what then, according to the great master, constituted real music?
One might argue that a lot of instrumental classical music is not meant for listening but for reading and playing in solitude. If you lived in the 1830's you couldn't just go out and buy a disc of the music composed in the last year. You would buy a Chopin score (much like one would buy a newly published novel), go home and begin reading it at the piano. You'd meet the book's heroes and heroines, you'd travel through unfamiliar landscapes, take part in the storyline. There are hundreds of iconic classical pieces that are unique worlds and dimensions—with their own laws of gravity, space and time—accessible only to those who can read and master them on the piano. Some compositions are, indeed, quite dark and dangerous and one must train hard before entering them, lest one loses his way or, worse, his sanity.
Like tantric mandalas, where the archetypal forces of one's mind are exemplified by colors, shapes, and fierce enlightened deities, there are piano pieces that can trap or transform one's mind completely. In my novel Wunderkind I've tried to explain what it's like to travel through some of these pieces as a performer.
1. Chopin, Scherzo in B minor, op. 20, no. 1
This scherzo was the first thing I played when I got back to practicing the piano after a thirteen year hiatus, during which I dropped out of Berklee College of Music in Boston, lived for five years in India, studying Tibetan, and then returned to the West to become a writer. Explosive, angry, passionate, tender, dissonant, and even surreal, this is one of the most daring compositions of this period, and even today it still sounds fresh and surprising. With its dissonant notes pinned to the most rhythmically prominent places and sweeping strokes of color in place of a melody, the first scherzo is one of those pieces that can be played as fast as one could, without any danger of burying something important underground.
2. Chopin's Prelude in A Minor
This is an incredibly strange prelude, which, at the time of its publication, raised many eyebrows with its raw, unapologetic, yet somehow mystical dissonance. The native key of A minor appears only twice in the whole piece: the first time near the end, and the second, in the last bar. The open-wound dissonance was too much even for Liszt, who was, arguably, one of Chopin's greatest admirers. Named by Hans von Bulow Presentiment of Death, this prelude can produce powerful visions of the world beyond.
3. Chopin, Etude in C, op. 10, no. 1
The first etude is all about colors: you start by painting strips of primary colors, then you begin mixing them quicker and quicker until you fill the entire light spectrum. Despite its simple arpeggio structure, I've never tired of playing this etude. There's something hypnotic in the way that each arpeggio ascends and descends, changing its shape, color and fingering, requiring one's full concentration. This is another piece that can only benefit from manic tempos.
4. Chopin, Ballade no. 2 in F, op. 38
I was twelve when my piano teacher gave me the score of the four ballads and told me to start reading the second, in F. For me this was a rite of passage: I was at the age when I had begun to ask the most urgent questions, and I was given the Book of Answers. As I started sight-reading the ballad and the F major triads resounded under my fingers, I knew that I was entering a world that had until now been forbidden for me, a world of painful truths and dark spirits.
5. Bach, Sonata in C minor, BWV 1017, Allegro
One should be careful when traveling through the six sonatas unaccompanied by an experienced guide. When as a teenager I played this sonata with a fellow violin student in my Chamber Music class, I often ended up in deep, Dante-esque forests very far away from school. There were times, in fact, when I felt that part of me remained forever trapped there, in the birdless woods encircling the cave.
6. Chopin, Etude in C Minor, op. 25, no. 12
This is an etude of paradoxes. While both hands move up and down through all the octaves in dramatic, frantic arpeggio attacks, a subtle, slowly unfolding, refrain paints a picture of stillness and immutability. It is very much like a revolution because beneath the turmoil, violence, and urgency of each revolution there remains something—one might call it the human condition—that cannot be changed through slogans, proclamations and contrasting stage sets. The C minor etude can be played in any tempo, with differing results—contemplatively, as in the Goldberg Variations, or at top speed, like the Flight of the Bumble Bee.
Nikolai Grozni and Wunderkind links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists