Arts: `We can't make it easy enough'

Joanna MacGregor, one of the most outstanding pianists of her generation, is using digital projections on her latest tour. Is this classical music by numbers?
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The Independent Culture
It's an abiding dilemma facing any musician, ensemble or orchestra wanting to perform contemporary music: is it best to present programmes consisting solely of contemporary works, and thus risk alienating audiences for whom "new music" means "unlistenable music"? Or do you programme established repertoire pieces (which is to say, "old" music) alongside new works, and risk the accusation of tokenism?

Each approach has its advocates, but the pianist Joanna MacGregor, whose commitment to new music is exemplary, has no doubt which suits her best: "I don't want to play just contemporary music in a concert. I don't think it's helpful for the audience, the composer, or myself to create a kind of contemporary `ghetto', so I've always looked for ways of mixing things up in my programming."

Thus her latest tour, which opens next week, puts the Tudor composers William Byrd and John Dowland alongside defiantly modern works by Harrison Birtwistle, John Cage and Thomas Ades. This isn't a random set of juxtapositions. Nor is it mere whimsy to perform Bach alongside the American Conlon Nancarrow, who spent most of his life composing for player-piano, in the belief that merely human hands could not accomplish the complex figurations he sought (MacGregor will use multi-tracking to achieve the desired results).

For MacGregor, the programme embodies a sense of, if not continuity, then at least affinity: "It's a mix of personal love, and something a bit more concrete. I know, for example, that Birtwistle loves Tudor music, and there's a melancholy in his work that links it to music from that era. And the links between Bach and Conlon Nancarrow are very strong. Nancarrow's work is based on a device which Bach pushed to the extreme in The Art of Fugue. It seems to me that Nancarrow was doing in the 20th century, what Bach did in the 18th century. Under different circumstances, of course, not least a different political context - but structurally and philosophically they're very close.

"And now the software has come along to recreate what he painstakingly invented over several decades. But that always seems to be the way: technology takes 50 years to catch up with what people struggle to make with their hands. I see Nancarrow's work as a kind of her- oic invention."

Although it is not her intention to deliver a musical lecture, MacGregor acknowledges that the music provides a kind of essay in sound: "There's a lot of energy in the pieces, they're flights of fantasy, leaps into the unknown, and I find that very moving. Although the programme goes backwards and forwards in time, there is also a linear aspect to it: about progress, a scientific, even mechanistic way of always moving forward.

"But having done that in the first half, I wanted to go against it in the second half, so I'm playing John Cage's Water Music, which involves whistles, water and live radio; Incarnation II by the Japanese composer Somei Satoh, which is rather minimalist but epic at the same time; and Jonathan Harvey's Le Tombeau de Messiaen: all pieces that do not work with the Western notion of time." This is clearly different from the repertoire- scanning that goes into most piano recitals. And there is another aspect that sets her programme apart: it will be performed in conjunction with digital projections by the artist Andrew Stones.

MacGregor is at pains to point out that "I'm not providing a soundtrack for a whole lot of images". She says: "It's more collaborative than that. Andrew's ideas are not at all cluttered, they are deeply thought-out, abstract, at times almost cerebral, which suits the baroque pieces in my programme. It seems to me that the way visual artists think is very different from the way musicians think. Musicians probably don't think enough, we're too busy practising the notes, worrying about the obvious things: who is it by? When was it written? What is its structure? I like working with people who think beyond that, which Andrew certainly does. He doesn't read music, but he immerses himself completely in the music, responding with a real visual-arts sensibility. That's been very good for me."

There will be those who say that such experiments distract from the proper business of performance. MacGregor has little time for their objections: "There is this concern about the integrity of the piano recital, about making it too easy for the audience. I think we can't make it easy enough. Who wants to feel that they're going into an examination? I'm not saying: `This is the way that music should be played.' This is simply one way it can be done."

Importantly, she is also alert to the dangers of technology for technology's sake, or using it as a gimmick to draw audiences in. "I get tired of people saying, `Hey let's send video cameras into concert halls and everything will be all right'. On the other hand, if you keep on performing the same repertoire, in the same way, in the same places, then communication becomes lopsided. Nor is it about sacrificing complexity. I revel in the complexity of composers like Birtwistle, I find it energising, not threatening. I want to say to audiences, `You won't get it all first time round, but that's OK'. Then again, whatever happens here, the world isn't going to end: 99.9 per cent of piano recitals will continue to be nothing like this."

MacGregor's programme will also include a work she herself has written. With some apprehension she says: "It will not be a big statement. If I can make space for it, I'm going to try to do more composing, in a minor and modest way."

Nevertheless, it is a mark of her continuing evolution as a performer that she now contemplates composition, her confidence boosted by opportunities she has had to work with improvising jazz players like Django Bates (he wrote a piano concerto for her), and Nikki Yeoh, for whom performing and composition are inseparable.

"What's wonderful is that jazz musicians are so accepting. Nothing's a big deal: you've done the rehearsal, you get up on stage and they say, `Let's see how it goes. Just get up there and play.' For a classical player like me, that's very creative."

Joanna MacGregor's Soundcircus, from today, Exeter Phoenix (01392 667 080), then tours