The New Music Festival begins on January 27th, and on Sunday, January 28th, Winnipeg pianist Madeline Hildebrand will be taking the stage at the Centennial Concert Hall alongside international pianists Vicky Chow, Jenny Lin, Jónas Sen, and composer Philip Glass. The five will perform The Complete Piano Etudes, a set of twenty pieces composed by Glass. Each performer will take the stage twice to play a consecutive set of two etudes, and their performances will be preceded and followed by a panel discussion, alongside a showcase of new music installations in the lobbies during intermission.
A few weeks before the performance, I visit Madeline in the home she shares with her partner, Steve Ackerman, to talk more about her work with the Piano Etudes and the New Music Festival.
FULL: So I know Glass composed these etudes to challenge his piano technique, but could you tell me more about what that means?
Madeline Hildebrand: Etudes is a French word for study. Throughout the history of music, composers have been writing etudes that challenge a specific technical aspect. Glass is taking technical aspects and trying to write them into beautiful music that’s also a challenge.
Glass’ music is minimalist music — it’s simple and repetitive. There’s one ostinato in the left hand, one idea, that will repeat bar by bar for about ten minutes. When you’re in the audience, it’s very meditative, but for the performer, it can be challenging, because in that repetition, you’re doing the exact same gesture, the same motion, and you can get pretty tight. Any professional could sight read these etudes, but the challenge in practicing them is staying limber, staying relaxed, focusing on the gesture rather than getting distracted by the notes. That’s what’s challenging generally about Phillip Glass’ music.
FULL: As a career pianist, how do to stay healthy and keep yourself able to play?
MH: I have a set of stretches that I learned from an athletic therapist. A lot of people think it’s the hands that get the work out, but it’s more the forearms and pec muscles. Some pianists deal with golfer’s elbow or tennis elbow. I had a little scare about two years ago. I have a mild case of tendonitis that I’m always dealing with, but as long as you recognize that tired feeling, you can do a lot of work to repair yourself. I get massages once a month. You do have to stay healthy, because the reality is that even though you’re sitting, you’re actively sitting, and you’re using these fine muscles that can give your tendons a serious work out. During crunch time, I’ll sit at the piano for four to five hours at a time, which is not healthy, and I wouldn’t recommend that to most people, but if that’s the time you’ve got, then that’s the time you take.
FULL: How have you gone about practicing these particular pieces?
MH: Everyone practices differently, but I tend to give myself amounts of time for working on each piece. Ten minutes on one, twenty on another if it’s a bit more difficult. My method for preparing to play on stage is to play for other people. I’ll play for Steve. I have great neighbours who are also classical musicians, so I’ll bring them over, or I’ll have friends over. Having another set of ears in the room immediately strikes up that adrenaline for me, which helps me simulate a real performance.
FULL: Are there ways you harness your adrenaline when you’re performing?
MH: It really depends on the audience and the relationship I have with the piece I’m performing, even my relationship with the setting and the stage. I’ve played minor performances, but had a particular association with a hall, or played there as a kid when I was really nervous, and that can be a mental freak-out game. Vice versa has also happened, where I go into a city, and I’m playing for an audience where I don’t know anyone, and I’ve never played on that stage. It’s a high pressure event, but I’m feeling great.
I think I’m still figuring out how to control and harness my adrenaline and nerves. I know I’m getting better at it. I think it’s great to keep performing and simulating performances environments. It’s very hard though, once you’re on stage, to go, “I’m going to feel like this, and I’m going to execute that.” Apparently one of the reasons your fingers and extremities get a bit cold in a high pressure performance situation is that your body is going into fight-or-flight. Even though this should be considered a safe environment — people paid money to come see you. They’re straight-up supporting you! We get cold and tense because our blood is flowing more to our organs and brain to help with the fight.
I think my nerves are a lot better now than they were than when I was in university, and part of that is confidence. To have someone call me and say, “We want you to play with Philip Glass.” That’s huge. When I go into high pressure performances, I just have to remind myself, I’m worthy of this. I’ve been asked because people enjoy listening to me.
FULL: Besides being freshly composed, how would you describe new music to people?
MH: Traditional harmony, chords and harmonies built around each degree of the minor and major scales, is challenged in new music. New music also challenges traditional rhythms and time signatures, so it sounds different rhythmically and harmonically. Rather than having the melody be the centre of the piece, new music composers often take it outside of that and think about finding a mathematic pattern that hasn’t been produced before, a rhythm that hasn’t been produced before. It’s a question of what can influence a piece besides a melody.
FULL: Are there differences you notice in your approach to playing new music as opposed to playing a classical piece?
MH: No. I think technique-wise, you have to try to execute it as brilliantly as possible. In terms of the melody, even though you’re not starting with an obvious one, you’re trying to make the music speak as clearly as possible. Sometimes I say to my students, “You have to take this piece where you’re not seeing a semblance of melody, and you have to play it the way you play the Chopin Nocturne. You have to find the most beautiful parts, you have have find the melodies, and play them. Even if you’re not convinced, you have to fake it.”
FULL: What does that process look like?
MH: I think it’s playing it enough times so that you’re connecting to it and you can hear the melodic components. It’s the same thing you do with a Mozart Concerto, you find phrasing, do little crescendos and diminuendos that emphasis the most interesting parts in the whacky harmony. You’re putting your voice into it rather than just playing from the page. That’s what musicians do with classical music. You use the page as a road map, but what makes people want to hire you is your interpretation. You have to do the same with new music, you have to lift it from the page.
The cool thing about Glass’ music is he’ll take a repetitive gesture, he’ll add another repetitive gesture on top of it, he’ll go with that for quite a long time, and then the piece will shift when he takes that gesture and changes it ever so slightly. Often he’ll come back to the original gesture. In his music, he plays with a lot of polyrhythms. That means you might have a group of two in one hand and a group of three in another hand, and how those rhythms shift over top of each other in their repetitive sound is really quirky and playful. Even though it’s repetitive, it’s playful, and it keeps your ear challenged. What’s to love about his music is that it’s understandable, approachable music.