A Rare Breed: The Dual World of Composer-Performers

“A rare breed, the pianist-composer is today,” I’m often told.  “There aren’t any of them around,” I hear in reference to those musicians who play their own works at a high level alongside the towering classics – old and new – of the keyboard repertoire.

“Really, are you quite sure?”

With each progressive concert-going season, audiences the world over are introduced to sensational young keyboardists touting their own compositions, boldly paired with standard musical fare. Gabriela Montero, a glamorous young Venezuelan pianist not only plays Frederic Chopin’s music with abundant polish and expressive abilities but improvises on some of the best known (and beloved) masterpieces of Chopin’s catalogue.  Furthermore, Montero welcomes musical ideas and fragments from her audiences, turning them into wondrous encores right on the spot, shiny and new.

In 1993, a virtuosic English pianist-composer (aged twenty-two) took London by storm, dashing off a revelatory debut recital with iconic swagger and panache.  London – and soon all of Britain – became enchanted.  Thomas Adès dazzled his audiences with exquisite pianistic colours and sophisticated, edgy rhythms.  Innovation, poise and sex appeal were the names of the cultural game in mid-‘90’s London and young Wunderkind Adès was just the ticket.  What was more?  He included the music of Liszt, Janacek, Stravinsky, Grieg and Nancarrow on his solo recital programmes, always alongside his own works.

Twenty years later, in the North America of 2013, a splashy American organist has been practically reinventing the notion of performer-composer, serving up musical theatrics to audiences on an unprecedented scale of brilliance and mastery.  Cameron Carpenter – a bone fide prodigy of the millennium’s second decade – embodies flare, style, intelligence and charisma, to say nothing of his compositional prowess.   He wears both hats, that of the performer and composer, with equal confidence and has found a truly individual platform for melding these two abilities into a singular art.

In addition to such contemporary sensations, pianist-composers such as Marc-André Hamelin, George Benjamin, Rolf Hind, Keith Jarrett and Steward Goodyear, (to name a few), lead very active careers, consistently writing and playing their own music.

In many respects there have always been composers who champion their own works at the keyboard and pianists who expound their own compositions.  The relationship of composer to interpreter – of composition to instrument – remains requited and unchanged.

But isn’t that the very thing that makes the pianist-composer most interesting?  Delving deeper into the essence of this symbiotic relationship, one finds a long and illustrious lineage of composers who wrote from – and off – the keyboard.  Musical ideas that might have begun as “piano ideas” would become destined for a wider compositional pallet, such as the symphonic or operatic genre.  Conversely, many of these “piano ideas” stayed as just that: ideas born of the keyboard, developed from its heart and somehow always meant for a pianistic realm.  What is often described as idiomatic music for piano will consistently garner praise and attention from interpreter and listener alike.  Part of this attraction must be due in no small part to the inexplicable nature of the craft in these works, built from inception to maturity as veritable piano creations.

Profuse in the world of classical music today, tireless and immutable, so many of the masterpieces for piano have long captured the ears of the world.  These pieces are eternally beloved, spanning many centuries of keyboard creation. They seem, even inescapable at times.

But do we really want to escape them if we could!? There remains something evocative, alluring and ultimately irresistible about that ‘ol black and white instrument of “eighty-eight keys and no lock.”[1]  Because of it, time and time again, the imagination of the composer joins forces with that of the interpretive realm. Remarkably, even in the year 2014, the resulting possibilities seem as boundless as ever.  And what of the musical results?

They’re astonishing, (most of the time).

[1] This phrase, attributed to Leon Fleischer, was long planned as the title to the American pianist’s autobiography.  When Fleischer’s autobiography did finally appear in print in 2010, the title instead was: “My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music.”

Adam Sherkin is a Toronto-based pianist and composer. He has appeared in performance at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, the Four Seasons Centre, the Glenn Gould Studio, the Toronto Centre for the Arts, the Royal Conservatory, St Martin-in-the-Fields, Covent Garden and the Royal Albert Hall, among others. Adam’s works have been premiered throughout Canada, the United States and Britain. His website is http://www.adamsherkin.com/