The chiasma of sound and body movement in Kurtág's Játékok

Keywords: Kurtág, Játékok, piano, movement, sound, body, entwining

The subjective experience is the key to playing

One of the characteristic traits of Kurtág's Játékok-collection is the entwining of sound, movement and phrasing.

What you experience from music depends on the personality of the player or listener, their past experiences and skills. Playing Kurtág's music requires intense personal presence in producing the music. Presence means participating in playing as a physical phenomenon, listening and interpreting the music. Each player understands the musical events from their own perspective and the sequence of these events is only understood on a personal level. Even if the teacher would teach making music in pianistic means the music will not touch the audience if the player has no personal relationship to the music.

The entwining of musical expression and the player's physical movements in Kurtág's music affects the player's ability to hear and listen. The experience of movement and sound is bodily and individual and it leads to musical interpretation. Kurtág stretches the tension of two notes to its limits by moving the two notes far away from one another to the opposite ends of the clavier. This type of notation requires the player to listen to the distances and tensions between notes. When moving from one note to the other the arm as if listens to the journey it has to travel and thus hearing guides the physical action.

Kurtág has created unique note figures to help visualize the style of playing and to help understand the physical movement in playing. Kurtág has accurately emphasized the notes, which belong to the same phrase. Notes, that are marked far from one another, are combined by a phrase line, which allures the player to play plastically, associating the music with the curving phrase lines. When the connection of the notes is found, the tones and the style of playing blend together. Consequently, the physical movement imitates the language of the visual picture and the final sonorous outcome.

The character of the piece exists in the movements of the body. The player listens to the music and produces it with his or her entire body. Playing occurs on an almost entirely subconscious level of experience. You have to make a conscious effort to do this, particularly when you are just starting to learn a piece. (It takes conscious work particularly at the beginning of learning a piece.) The thought of a musical gesture, an intention, forms a movement, which produces a sound or a group of sounds. Listening to the sound of the intentional movement is delivered to the player’s mind (brings feedback to the mind). A cycle is formed in which feedback plays a significant part. This cycle is the key to the continuity of producing music when a piece has been adapted. If a movement produces a sought sound the journey continues forward without interruption. Then again if the movement breaks the musical continuity, the process and progress are disturbed. In this case, one must change the style of playing, which forms a direct link to the musical interpretation of a piece.

In order to relay the relevance of the above to practicing, I will present some chosen pieces of Kurtág in more detail.

Tenyeres-Palm Stroke

In the piece Palm stroke the cluster is used as a main element. This is a very short, accurate and explosive piece. I have found this piece to symbolize strong will. Its fierceness and rapidity force you to react in the here and now. The lines between the caesuras seem to be arguing between one another.

The first cluster is very demanding. It is followed by a long fermata, during which the player has time to think of how to respond to the demands given before. The second cluster responds to the given challenge and it is followed by a short fermata. The development unfolds itself here like a flash - first two, then three and four clusters in a row. The fermata after the four clusters is travelling forwards in nature and is full of extremely charged emotions. This tension is brought to its culmination point by yet two clusters that are played from the opposite ends of the keyboard. A short fermata follows, in effect, stopping in panic after all of the fierceness. The only imaginable answer is piano-dolce, in other words a complete change of direction, which is actually temporary. The same cluster commences a raging crescendo towards the last forte-cluster. The composer has marked a fermata at the final double line to emphasize the pause the musician needs after the last note to experience the fury.

The composer requires the musician to play the clusters in close proximity to the keyboard. (“Always be on the keyboard!”). Tone is a part of articulation and even in an extremely charged state of mind the tone has to be very controlled. The sound should not break for it loses its demanding character and sensitivity. When teaching, Kurtág often speaks of how the player needs to exhibit inner preparation. Only then does the player have the possibility for true freedom in performance.

Kurtág once gave the following example on rehearsing a work of music:

You have a forest that you aren't familiar with and you want to get to know it. What do you do? If you cut the trees down one by one the forest won't exist anymore. If you make paths you will learn to move in the forest and it will become a comprehensible and familiar place. You can then vary the routes to your destination each time. This is how you can stay open to experiencing music in a different way each time.

He also speaks of preparing oneself in a physical manner. The tone, chord, gesture, phrase, other musical element or the piece in its entirety has to be felt in the body beforehand. It seems that the player listens as much with the body as with the ears. The player also 'sees and thinks' with his or her hands. This causes the piece to sound different each time it is played. The physical experience also affects hearing - if you get to know a piece by only reading the music your image of it will be different than if you approached the music by playing. Many of the pieces in Játékok aim towards enhancing the feeling of one’s mind and body. Kurtág also talks about how the arm should feel the resonance of the sound played. This exactly is an experience of listening to the body.

When playing fast movements with the hands you should not lose your center. Your arms should open without tension in the elbows. A whole gesture or phrase should be played with one movement and prepared with one breath. It is helpful to practice the piece without sound both on the pianolid and as a pantomime (without sound on the keyboard). When you begin practicing tapping on the pianolid, you should especially concentrate on listening to the time between the sounds. This is what builds the tension in Palm Stroke. While practicing this piece as a pantomime, it happens in slow motion. In order to feel the clusters in your hands you need to stop on each one for a moment. Practicing with pantomimes also draws a path for continuity. The arms are in constant motion. Despite the fierceness and rapidity in the piece the movements are never to change totally rugged. The fermatas don't work as rests because they demand a continuation for what has been expressed before and are as if saying and...and...

Virág az ember…Flowers we are, Frail flowers...

The pieces in Virág az ember… describe death. These seven note pieces contain in a miniature form one of the most beautiful things in the world - the thought of human fragility and the changing nature of life. There are two versions to the piece. Version A is notated in a summary manner and version B is notated meticulously. I will examine version B first.

This work of music consists of only 7 tones and lasts for only 20 seconds. This piece opens on “G-dominant” to end itself on “C-tonic”. Its tones form a diatonic scale on the white keys, a certain kind of circle, which captures the player in itself. The first motive is formed by the two first tones. The gesture begins in an upbeat and questioning manner. The second motive consists of three tones and replies to the previous motive. It also begins in an upbeat manner. The three last tones create the third motive and close the piece as a cadence.

Using a broken lined legato line Kurtág shows which tones belong to the same gesture. I think he avoids using a 'normal' legato-line because the piece is played lightly using the pedal. The hands follow the lines and connect the tones belonging together. You can feel the legato moving from one tone to the other as you play them from one hand to the other. It brings a sensation of the melody flowing through your body. This thought helps in feeling the tension between the tones. Kurtág has suggested changing the roles of the hands: the right hand plays the lower staff and the left hand plays the upper staff. This change in the style of playing is meant to yet reinforce the experience of tension between the tones. The movements of the hands require more concentration and trouble and this affects the tension in the interpretation.

There is also a cluster version to this piece (look at example B). When playing it I wondered why its timing in notation differs from version A. I have come to the conclusion that a cluster needs to be “prepared” with more time and care, compared to preparing one tone. This is the reason why the upbeat quarter note has been changed to a whole note. The upbeat quarter note in the third motive is changed into a whole note for the same reason. There is, however, a hold upside down on it, which diminishes its value a bit. The meaning of this type of a fermata is brought up clearly here - the music lingers but does not stop on the fermata. The fermata is part of the phrase and it’s striving to move towards the last tone. 

When playing clusters in pianissimo the hand movements can be compared to walking on the moon or slow-motion movies. It is important to find a smooth and continuous feel for the movements. The pedal can be held down during the whole piece and the resonance of the last tone can be left to dampen peacefully. Kurtág has noted for the post-resonance to last no longer than the played part.

Örökmozgo (talált tárgy) Perpetuum mobile (objet trouvé)

The only composing material used in Perpetuum mobile are glissandos. The piece is constructed of three almost identical passages and a coda. By using different nuances the piece becomes consistent and musically interesting.  Putting this piece into practice requires careful listening and control the body as a whole. The right hand plays the upward glissandos and the left hand the downward glissandos. The hand movements are similar to the glissando lines - very elastic and carefully formed. The sounding sentiment to the piece can be associated with sounds of nature - the crashing of waves, the sound of wind in the trees, from a small breeze to a storm.  Perpetuum mobile breathes the rhythm of nature and lacks a steady and determined pulse.

The composer has given Vivace, ma sempre tranquillo as a performance mark (lively but peaceful throughout). I have understood this to mean that each wave is to be played to the very end and the bigger the wave the more time is needed. Vivace is present in each glissando movement and tranquillo is present in breathing the full waves. In addition Kurtág has added the marking legato possible (tieing as well as possible), which I gather particularly indicates forming the glissandos. The hand which changes the direction of the glissando is to be well prepared and on time in its position. The glissandos need to slur extremely well from one hand to the other, in legato. The cooperation with the hand and ear is the most important in the curves where the direction changes. Therefore what you hear must imitate (follow) the musical curves delicately and attentively. Special sensitivity is needed in moments where the “harmony” changes, in other words where the tones move from white to black keys or vice versa.

The player gets to define the nuances of the piece. One composer suggested it start in silence, as from emptiness, and continue sempre piano, continuously quiet. The repeat of the first passage was a massive crescendo- diminuendo, first increasing and then diminishing. The third repeat was played sempre diminuendo, continuously diminishing. The piece ends as if vanishing into emptiness on the long hold. Finally the piece is erupted by a surprising downward fortissimo-glissando, strongly sliding, which is played by both hands - the right hand on the black keys and the left on the white keys. The piece ends with a wild cluster on the lowest register possible. The composer instructed to play the cluster with hands on top of each other. This helps you best to control the strength being used. The other suggestion is to interlock your hands on top of each other, which causes the cluster to sound on a wider range. The composer wished for the last cluster to be played off the pedal.  The end of the cluster should be articulated as intensively as the beginning - fiercely and forcefully.

In the three chapters above, I have aimed to illustrate the entwining of different aspects of playing, including notes, movement, sound and phrasing. I describe it entwining, because it seems nearly impossible to separate the different aspects of playing into their own units, even though in the learning process of a piece the player focuses on one aspect at a time. Usually you learn the notes first and work out their meaning. Secondly, you search for the styles of playing and practice them to flow naturally. In the third stage you combine the first two stages and they begin to entwine together. After this the player begins to form meanings out of gestures and motives and create a complete picture of the piece. This is when the player begins to discuss how the different motives relate to one another. All of this results in physical movement and entire musical thoughts - in other words, music.

Kristiina Junttu

Sibelius-Academy, DocMus- Department of Doctoral Studies in Musical Performance and Research, Helsinki, Finland, professor Marcus Castrén as the supervisor


The chiasma of sound and body

movement in Kurtág's Játékok