Joanna MacGregor: Open a different part of your brain

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The Independent Culture

A performance by Joanna MacGregor is not your average piano recital. At one point during her show last month at Ocean, she was joined onstage by an actor declaiming passionately in Serbo-Croat, later by a jazz bassist strumming coolly. Then, with the aid of multi-tracking, she played five pianos simultaneously in one of Conlon Nancarrow's impossibly complex studies.

MacGregor enjoys a challenge. Later this month, on tour with the Britten Sinfonia, she takes her experimentation a step further when she plays the solo part in three works for piano and orchestra, while directing the performance from the piano. It will be her conducting debut, and she has chosen to perform concertos that, for her, represent "different sides of the same coin. One, by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, is dark and abrasive, passionate and dramatic. The other, by the American composer Lou Harrison, is the antithesis: light and transcendental, in the end quite non-Western. I know these pieces inside out. I've played the Harrison with other conductors, I know what the problems are. I'm there to help them with those difficult passages."

Typically, MacGregor has also invited the pop musician Nitin Sawhney to provide the third concerto, his first orchestral work. Neural Circuits is one of a number of collaborations she has undertaken with non-classical musicians: "The musicians who interest me most are people like Nitin Sawhney, Talvin Singh, Django Bates," she says. "They are not just writing music but performing it, recording it, putting tours together and running their own labels. That is what real musicians are, rather than over-publicised specialists. I like Nitin's open attitude, the way he uses sampling, how he layers textures. I think it'll be an interesting, but rhythmically difficult piece."

Few classical musicians trained to MacGregor's level are prepared to contemplate improvisation, but she thinks it essential to encourage it in her pupils: "When my students are playing Bach, I say to them, 'Start by improvising around the ornamentations.' It's a way to open up a different part of your brain, and classical musicians have that knocked out of them. The training they go through makes them very skilful, but it induces a certain passivity. That has to change. At the moment, classical music is imploding, which is a painful process, but eventually it will lead to a new generation of musicians who are able to think for themselves."

Joanna MacGregor: Civic Theatre, Chelmsford (01245 606505), 18 Oct and touring; information: 01223 300795

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