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Opening Doors: Ralph van Raat talks to Jeremy Siepmann

January 17, 2012

Ralph van Raat

Given his reputation, perhaps the first thing to be said about Ralph van Raat is that he is not a specialist. In addition to his now renowned championing of ‘modern’, ‘contemporary’ music, so-called, he is steeped in the standard repertoire—Baroque, Classical, Romantic. Never a man given to labels, whether applied to himself or to the music he plays, he sees the story of music not as a coexistence of self-contained republics, near and far, but as a continuum (Arnold Schoenberg, after all, regarded himself not as a revolutionary iconoclast but as a natural, and worshipful, descendant of Brahms). Van Raat’s fascinated immersion in the ‘new’ music of the twentieth-century sprang not from the inspiration of a proselytising teacher but from his own innate curiosity and liveliness of mind.

‘I had piano lessons from the age of seven and naturally I studied the regular, classically dominated repertoire but at the same time I was always interested in other music. Jazz, for example (this from when I was about 11). So-called ‘free jazz’, in particular, intrigued me very much. I didn’t know anything at that point about music theory but when I was 14 I finally decided to learn more about harmony, mainly because I noticed that free jazz and Mozart sounded very different (obviously!) and wanted to discover why. So I took some harmony books from the library and devoured them. I also read about dodecaphonic music, and when I read about serialism, and tones being manipulated through numbers, that absolutely fascinated me. So I went back to the library and got out some scores by Schoenberg—these were of Opus 19 and Opus 11. I started with Opus 19 because they’re the briefest pieces, and I could hardly believe my eyes when I opened it. I couldn’t believe that someone had actually written these sounds and rhythms down. Of course I didn’t understand it at first but I immediately felt a very powerful emotional reaction. I’d expected some sort of mathematical music but here I was really moved by it. Immediately I wanted to explore this kind of music further, so I dove into the music of Webern and Berg and beyond. Having done all this off my own bat, so to speak, I then found a specialist in Holland, Ton Hartsuiker, who became my teacher and introduced me to much, much more.’

Even today some people find Op 19 difficult. I was therefore particularly curious to know more about the nature of the emotion it aroused in the young van Raat. ‘Well at the moment, as I say, I was 14, and of course then you’re in the middle of puberty, basically, and you start asking many questions about life, about yourself, about the world at large; you start really to explore your own emotions, your doubts, all this kind of thing, and this was something I seemed to recognise very strongly in this music. I sensed at once a person who was in some sort of pain, and who had a message that he wanted to convey. Something from deep in his heart, in his soul. And I heard something of the same sort of doubt that I was experiencing at that time. During this period, I discovered lots of music, much of which I didn’t understand. Yet it always intrigued me how different types of music could have such varied and profound effects on our states of mind, our emotions. I didn’t understand how some people could think of this music as “intellectual”. For me it was as immediate as Mahler.’

Does ‘contemporary music’, I wondered, remain a hard sell? ‘It’s mostly difficult to sell to concert managers, promoters etc., who tend to be very conservative. But time and again in concerts I’ve found that audiences react especially warmly to the contemporary element, whether it’s a whole recital, or a half or just a couple of pieces. They’re most enthusiastic about precisely those elements which the organisers most specifically objected to in the planning stage. I find people are continually struck by how much 20th century and contemporary music has to do with them, with their lives and experiences.’

And how does van Raat define, or understand, the term ‘modernity’? ‘For me, it’s any form of art which has the contemporary world as its basis—no matter when it was composed. Many composers today seem to be trying to relive the 19th century, stylistically. Their music, strictly speaking, is contemporary, but it’s not modern at all. Modernity consists in the way the composer incorporates the influences of the time. Much of late Beethoven—the ‘Hammerklavier’ fugue, say, or the Grosse Fuge—is eternally modern.’

We agree. And you don’t need to know anything at all about their time to hear in them (or in something like the finale to the Chopin B flat minor Sonata) the very essence of modernity itself. The intrinsic essence, as opposed to extrinsic, referential considerations. ‘Absolutely right! Modernity is not something that can be lost from a work. Or think, too, of more recent repertoire, like the Structures of Boulez, or any Xenakis piece. These, too, will always be modern.’

How ‘modern’ is Koechlin? ‘Aha! I think he’s post-modern! I see many relationships between Koechlin and Charles Ives, who use very similar techniques—polytonality, for example. It’s amazing sometimes how similar the chords actually feel on the piano. Sometimes Koechlin really feels like playing Ives. The music both, in many ways, could have been composed nowadays—after all the avant-garde etc, where composers basically embraced every style that had ever been created. Koechlin didn’t have much access to non-Western music but in Les heures de persanes he’s trying very much to embrace a feeling of time and space which his imagination connects with a place he’s never been. With Persia. And he does this in a very clever way, completely stepping outside of his boundaries. Or at least the stylistic boundaries of his time—which readily explains, I think, why he wasn’t much performed then and why he’s still hardly known. But he used so many things: polytonality, as I mentioned, and in this work, even quasi-twelve-tone structures. At the same time, it’s amazing how he can regress into a much more conventional style when needed. Here again, this is very similar to the present day, when composers really aren’t limited to any style. They can use whatever they want to find their own personal voice. The same is true of Koechlin, whose voice is very distinct, very personal. Because it’s so incredibly differentiated. This is what makes him Koechlin!’

Intrigued, I asked van Raat for some biographical background—but largely drew a blank. ‘It’s remarkably hard to come by. I had to find bits and pieces all over the place, but as far as I’ve been able to discover there’s not a single dedicated biographical work. Anyway, he was actually a contemporary of Ravel, and I think they studied together under Massenet and Fauré. And that’s already something significant—that he was a student of Fauré. This is important to know when you listen to (and when you perform) his works. Though some of them sound extremely modern, at the same time they’re permeated by tradition. Of course there are many parameters in his music, but the sense of line is of central importance. There are lots of bars that have no signature for example: no time signature, no key signature, no metronome markings. So it all looks very free. There are very few indications of tempo, and even then they’re not very definite. The first priority, for me, is to see the line of the piece, which has to be clear. When I listened to some other recordings (which I thought were very good) what I missed was any sense of the underlying tradition. Everything was played very free, as it looks—beautiful, but with a lot of time and hardly any sense of pulse. I just can’t imagine that a student of Fauré would just suddenly let go of those things, and ignore the balance and the structure. I mean what about the counterpoint? Counterpoint is really important in his work. And one has to clarify the form, the direction of the work. There are sixteen pieces in all and it’s quite obviously meant as a cycle. Just look at the many motives and harmonies that reappear throughout the different pieces. It’s clearly meant to be performed in one go, I think. And it should have the proportions of a cycle. It requires a full hour of concentrated listening. Another prerequisite, therefore, is that it should have a good balance of tempos. In general it’s slow, but in French music slow means something different than in German music. Generally, French music has a much faster pace, even when it says slow. You find this in both Debussy and Fauré, among others. So I felt I really needed to take a fresh look at tempos throughout. I was determined to try and clarify this large red line, so to speak, that runs throughout the work. Thus every piece has a different tempo and character in relation to the other movements. This may have resulted in a somewhat different rendition of the work from earlier interpretations, but I do think it’s interesting to hear it in this way.’

Are there some aspects of Koechlin’s music, I wondered, some aural subtleties, which actually lend themselves better to the intimacies of the recording studio than to the concert hall? ‘Oh certainly. Yes. Tone colour is a top priority in this work. There are many chords, for instance, which have a distinct afterlife. The different harmonic partials interact, producing a very special energy and colour. And all these differently coloured chords and harmonies impart to the work many of its most special and distinctive characteristics. In a hall many of these subtleties are lost. You’re simply too far away. Whereas in a recording you can hear everything. Also, a lot is written pianissimo and here again the microphone has the advantage. On the other hand there’s nothing to beat a concert hall in other ways. Among these is concentration. With this work, both performer and listener need a great deal of concentration. Sixty minutes’ worth—and this isn’t by any means an easy listen. For this, you’re better off in a hall than sitting at home where there are so many distractions.’

The recording studio is very much more than an acoustical workshop. It is an educational resource of almost unlimited potential, providing musicians with a level and type of insight and enlightenment beyond the reach of many teachers, even some of the best. The microphone may be inanimate, but it can do wonders for the illumination of the soul, as expressed through music. Nor does it even require a studio in which to work its wonders. Van Raat discovered that early on: ‘Ever since my first year at the conservatory I recorded all my playing, both at home and in concert, at first on a minidisk thing, just to see how I was doing. And it always amazed me how different things can sound from what you thought or intended. Tempos, for instance. In a concert, your heart often beats faster than normal, and this can distort your perception. You think you’re playing quite slowly but then you hear the playback you hear that you were actually playing a good deal faster than you thought. I’m still learning about this today. For example with the Koechlin, when I recorded it I was focused on certain elements that seemed to me of special importance, certain motives, certain melodies, certain harmonies and so on—and when I listened back, I heard so many new things—relationships between notes and certain colouristic things that I hadn’t heard before—that I decided to re-record the entire work. I think it’s vital that the musician records. It’s really a completely different discipline from playing a recital, and just as important—to really get to know your own playing, to understand your personal make-up as a performer, to be your own conductor. Of course one of the things that I don’t like about recordings is that they’re so definite, so permanent. I record something and then a year later I hear it back and my view has changed absolutely!’

And does he have a favourite among his recordings? ‘Very often I feel that my favourite recording is the one I’m working on at the moment, because I’m really digging in, living it to the full etc. but generally speaking, I’m actually very fond of a recording I made for Naxos of an almost unknown work, The Book of Sounds by Hans Otte. It’s a bit like Koechlin, actually; it’s very diverse—very minimalistic at times but very chromatic and complex at others. And it exploits the resonance of the piano marvellously well. It’s very much about colour—I love colour and everything to do with it—but it’s also about melody and about finding the inner melodies of a chord or chord progression. It’s an experiment in harmony and concentration. Almost an exercise in hearing, and trying to identify yourself in a new world of sound.’

He’s talking, of course, about a piece of music. But if you’ve spoken for any length of time with Ralph van Raat it’s hard to avoid the feeling that he’s also revealing much about his own character and aspirations as an artist. In such hands, the cause of modern music, from whatever time, looks set to flourish for some little time yet.

Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.

Ralph van Raat Biography & Discography

Charles Koechlin Biography & Discography

Previous releases by Ralph van Raat:

Previous releases with Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic & JoAnn Falletta:


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