Frédéric Chopin; Etudes
If you are about to gather words around Chopin’s Etudes (1829 – 1836); if you are traveling a sphere of advances on this music; circling a possible realm of that which is Chopin, in the world, in your mind, slowly in transit from the oxygen of silence into the refined toxicology of the good/vicious medicine of the shadowy sorcerers of these Etudes, you have the choice of trying to meet them as complete unknowns (like rolling stones), or to feel them out through the personal filter of the performer; in this case Hsia-Jung Chang. I have no solution for this. I will just go ahead, in beat with the time of the Etudes, in beat with the time that flows through my body and through my extended body, which – for all of us – all us people, animals, trees, plants, minerals – is the planet, and the universe; i.e., that which is. Music is as close as you get to yourself in time and outside of time, I believe. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) said that music is an appearance of the world will. I believe it was in his work Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1819).
I have just received a copy of Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback’s and Peter Schuback’s text on life, music and the creative act, called Dissonansskrift, which could, perhaps, be roughly translated as Writings on Dissonance, or Treatise of Dissonance, or simply Dissonance. The simultaneous reading of this text as I think about, and listen to, Hsia-Jung Chang’s interpretations of Frédéric Chopin’s Etudes, probably colors my mood of thought, as I let it, without resistance, like I let the fresh morning air permeate my body as I step out onto the surface of this wondrous planet and take a deep breath, and realize that, though I seem to recognize everything, it is, in fact all new. So it is with these Etudes. I seem to recognize them well, but that is an illusion, a memory and an expectation that has manifested itself, for better or for worse, in my brain, in this part of the universe that is my brain. My actual experience right now of this music IS new, whether I understand this or not. It takes guts and determination to accept this music as the novelty it really is in this listening moment, like it also is a very hard exercise to walk out into each day with that same realization of newness. But that is how it is. Memory and Expectation are just two arrows pointing away from you, and those conceptions are even less real than the Now and the I, which modern physics has serious doubts about, while, also, it is my firm conviction that there is no practical or realistic way to divide yourself from everything/anything else. To the point of actually being stardust – and beyond – we are the universe looking at itself; existence in self-realization – and the realm of us, the universe, which is music, gestures to us from within our deepest and most intuitive knowledge, while the most urgent and real property of the universe seems to be consciousness. All places are here, all times are now. Everything comes out of 'dependent arising' [a Buddhist term indicating that nothing exists in and of itself, but as temporary manifestations of a number of ever-changing phenomena], and emptiness is the least common denominator]
Hsia-Jung Chang lets these Etudes flow in an effortless motion, in nuances of might and tenderness, light fingertippings and heavily flexing biceps. The long and lasting afterglow of each measure is one of flow, effortless flow; an erotic, even sexual absentmindedness: loose and relaxed concentration in calm ecstasy.
Perhaps the best way to conduct oneself vis-à-vis the music, as a critic, would be to simply take note of – and scribble down – whatever comes to mind as the music passes? I know that I often work this way, even though I haven’t spelled it out this way before. There may be a cleaner kind of truth in that, instead of imagining a set of values to apply to the passing of sound, deduced from the tradition of cultures and your own, private angle on things. Let the music be the environment; let it in fact be the air you breathe and the bread you brake, the fluid that invigorates you or excites you. Then be honest; let anything that arrives have room in your text, even in the occasional awkward case.
Let me thus listen through some of the Chopin Etudes, perhaps to comment on the music, or on something that comes to mind as I listen, or, rather, as the environment becomes the listening:
Track 1: Op. 10 No. 1 C major
It’s an opener of might and elegance; an artist on a stage, bowing to the audience in a 19th century setting, and I see a painting by Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917) of a female ballet dancer, her protruding skirt around her like a corona or the petals of a flower, as she bows and extends her right arm in a gesture of reverence to art, to audience, to life. It could be either the beginning of an evening at the opera, or the end; in that case perhaps Dancer with Bouquet (c1877).
The music – the Dancer – swirls about on the opera stage like an exotic moth caught in a feeling of canvas and oil paint and the hardly audible white noise of the friction of toe shoes across the boards.
Track 2: Op. 10 No. 2 A minor
Hsia-Jung Chang doesn’t hide her virtuosity in this brisk and relentless ritual of liveliness. The poles of the picket fence of the dancing melody thump through the premises (through low mist under sunlight) down in the keyboard register, while the outlying melody rushes through the nerves of the Taiwanese-American woman in an incredible Nancarrow speed, engaging her high-velocity right hand fingertips against the upper keys, retreating, at times down towards the middle.
Track 3: Op. 10 No. 3 E major, “Tristesse”
Simplicity is the one property or virtue that is the hardest for an artist to attain and utilize, to handle. It is always possible to practice enough – if you are talented and ambitious – to become masterly, virtuous. It is much harder to take on the simple. I think of this as I hear Hsia-Jung Chang find her way through the hardships of the apparent simplicity of Op. 10 No. 3; this mournful, reflective, even resigned little piece. She finds all the tiny, almost indiscernible nuances of tempo, volume and other, all but hidden layers of motion and emotion, like a mother seeking her child in a line-up of dead victims of an Obama air raid in Afghanistan, bringing the searching sorrow up through the mounting despair - the increasing volume and force of the music - as she thinks she sees her child in white cerements stained in red.
Track 4: Op. 10 No. 4 C-sharp minor
Rock n’ roll before the 1950s… Yes, this piece probably brought down the house on many piano soirées in Chopin’s time, and I can imagine many a sexually frustrated upper-class woman wrapped up in layer after layer of clothing ripping her cocoon to shreds, tearing at the raging pianist to perform more basic duties, having to be brutally dismissed by impeccable servants, while Chopin’s rock n’ roll perspiration falls onto the piano keys like salty rain.
I was planning to pick a few random examples out of all the Etudes, and I just happened to pick the first four, since I just couldn’t bear to pass them by – but now I’ll jump ahead a bit, and choose just a couple more of these great recordings.
Track 16: Op. 25 No. 4 minor
This short incident has its very own flavor and fragrance, and though the brevity of the piece may vouch for simplicity and a sense of the bagatelle, the composition’s peculiar hoquetus limp really has you listening hard, without the possibility of any lack of attention! Hsia-Jung Chang plays this intricate brevity with the utmost care and diligence, scientifically, as my imagination sees one of those old documentary film clips from the early 20th century run too fast, of women in black and white working intensely with their hands in jerky movements.
One observation that I make throughout this CD is the middle way of sound placement that Hsia-Jung Chang and her producer and engineer Hsi-Ling Chang has chosen for this set on Mandala Studio Records. It’s one wherein the piano is neither very close nor far off, but at a comfortable distance in the sound space that I’d call ‘early 20th centurish’, for lack of definition, since it makes me think of 78s with legends like Emil von Sauer, Moriz Rosenthal or Ignaz Friedman – and the low-key reverberation suites me perfectly too. I have a hard time with the heavy reverberation that some otherwise excellent recordings offer, like, for instance, Svjatoslav Richter’s rendition of Das Wohltemperierte Clavier on RCA Victor Red Seal and other labels (now remastered on Sony); a drawback that is found even on such recent recordings of the same work as Roger Woodward’s on Celestial Harmonies, while completely dry and un-reverberated versions of the 48 were entrusted to phonograms by Glenn Gould, Friedrich Gulda and – my favorite: Vladimir Ashkenazy… while I also try to convince Swedish pianist Niklas Sivelöv to do his forthcoming take on Das Wohltemperierte Clavier as dry as possible!
Track 24: Op. 25 No. 12 C minor, “Ocean”
No wonder this Etude has been named Ocean, because it begins with a mighty swell of full-blown, full-fledged pianism, masterfully delivered by a generously playing Hsia-Jung Chang. The rolling, swelling motion forwards kind of reminds me of a musician I once got to know, Ukrainian-Canadian-Swedish composer and musician Lubomyr Melnyk, who shaped a kind of music he called “continuous”, which he performed on piano, releasing several LPs and CDs, such as To The Living, The Dead And To Those Yet Unborn (1982), and A Portrait of Petlura On the Day He Was Killed (1989).
Another, more surprising, but in the end still natural association is one that leads to science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon (1886 – 1950) and his master work Star Maker (1937) and its first chapter, wherein the ego of the story gets out of his house somewhere in the English countryside, and climbs a small hill nearby, watching the night sky, with the Milky Way stretching across the void, when something mysterious happens and he is engulfed in a sensation that also comes across so well and full in Chopin’s music here, in which rippling, glaring, glimmering and glittering chords move and break in such might around you, wave after wave, that you are hoisted into the benevolent light, taking off into another dimension, in which secrets are revealed to you outside of time.
In fact, soon enough I completely forget that this is music by Frédéric Chopin, executed by Hsia-Jung Chang, and I forget myself for the elating, and at this stage overwhelming experience of chords and light – and perhaps this is the finest compliment you can give, concerning Chopin’s compositions and Hsia-Jung Chang’s interpretations, that they, like the inter-galactic transformation of the Star Maker’s main character, have you ascend, egoless, through chords of light!