Rising Star Ralph van Raat
Interview by Chloe Cutts
International Piano, March/April 2007
Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat became fascinated by contemporary music as a teenager, and has since made
it his mission to make seemingly inaccessible modern piano music approachable. He tells
Chloe Cutts about his new disc of the complete piano works by John Adams
My interest in modern piano music began when I was 15 and I discovered Schoenberg. Being a pianist wasn't something I'd been planning on when I was growing up, but from that moment I
knew it was what I had to do. When I was 23 I began listening to John Adams and became more interested in postmodern music rather than the beginnings of the contemporary style. Recording Adams' complete piano works has therefore been something I've wanted to do for some time. For me Adams is one of the major composers working today; his music is contemporary but accessible and is brimming with stylistic variety. It is essentially minimalist - full of repeating patterns which gradually change over time - but for Adams minimalism had become too one-dimensional and he wanted to make it more complex. His musical world goes beyond the minimalist languages of Steve Reich and Philip Glass to embrace the styles he grew up with: world music, jazz, Romanticism and pop - music I also grew up with - and he wanted to create music that reflected the times in which he was living.
‘Learning Adams' piano pieces has called for a very different approach to mastering most other piano literature, because it is music of a wholly different structure. Being able to rehearse with Adams himself was both a privilege and an eye-opener. He was incredibly kind and offered insights which only the composer could know about, whilst allowing me the space to create my own interpretations. Some of his advice completely changed my approach to his music. For example, because Adams' music is so rhythmic one tends to think of rhythm as being the most important element, so I was flabbergasted when during one rehearsal he said t0 me: “Forget about the rhythm; it should not sound like mechanical music. This music is about shading and different tints of colour - it should be played more like Debussy.”
'The first piece on the disc, Phrygian Gates, is the op.l of Adams' piano works, and China Gates [also on the CD] was a pre-study for it, so essentially they are part of the same work. The word 'gates' refers to electricity and the way an electric pulse stops or starts when a switch is pushed. Similarly, in Adams' music there is no real gradual transition between material: he switches tonality, notes and scales suddenly. These early works took their inspiration from Reich, Glass and non-Western music and were very tonal and accessible; but over time his musical language has become richer and less minimalistic, and the later piano works, including American Berserk, are increasingly dissonant and incorporate elements of modernism.
‘Winning a Borletti-Buitoni Fellowship has allowed me to commission a new piano piece, and I immediately thought of Gavin Bryars. He is another composer who uses many influences in his music and doesn’t restrict himself to just modernism. When we met we discovered that our musical ideas are quire similar. Despite his love for the piano he had never written a major piano work, but he has agreed to write a piece for me, which he will start this summer. All he has said is that it will be a huge work for piano, orchestra and optional choir and will probably be in one slow, melancholic movement. We will premiere it in the second half of 2008. I'm also busy exploring Finnish music, including piano works by Einojuhani Rautavaara, whose Etudes, for example, are relatively unknown and little played yet share many of the qualities of the etudes of Chopin and Debussy. There’s still so much to be discovered, particularly of the music being written now and from the past 20 years. I'm also planning to record several piano works by Frederic Rzewski for Naxos; including a big variation work called The People United will never be Defeated.When it was written in 1975 it Was hailed in the American press as being the most important variation work of the 20th century. It's incredibly heroic and extremely accessible for the public. Finally, a recording of the complete piano music of two major English composers, John Tavener and Jonathan Harvey, for Naxos, is also on the cards
'One of my missions is to help people understand how incredibly rich and diverse contemporary music is. As a performer you have to work much harder with modem music because audiences are often hearing it for the first time. And people think that it all sounds the same, that it's abstract, atonal, difficult. .. The challenge is to demystify this music and reveal how it is structured. Often you are working with material that is very dissonant, and you have to find a way of making it sound beautiful. Contemporary music has all of the complexity, beauty, emotional depth and interest of music of any other period, but the performance practice and interpretation of these works has in the past made them sound inaccessible. Thankfully the interpretation of the piano music by such composers as Berio, Boulez, Xenakis and Webern has changed immeasurably since it was written 50 years ago. In the 1950s and 60s performers thought of this music as being composed by computers, and they played it like that, so the music sounded very dry and conceptual. But performers have come to realise that this music contains the same phrasing, dynamic contours and light and shade as you would expect to find in a piece of Classical or Romantic music. When these Classical principles of form, proportion and so forth are applied to contemporary music, the music comes alive - it becomes music. And as a performer specialising in contemporary music it's such a luxury to play repertoire that is little known and has no established, accepted interpretation. Many of these works have never been recorded before, and this allows me to be creative and to discover the music myself.'