Pianoless Composers - Georgia Denham

New Voices 2020 composer Georgia Denham speaks to fellow composers who don't play piano, exploring the stigmas that still surround this in contemporary music

Despite barely being able to play a tune, I have long been fascinated by the piano, and the starring role it occupies within western classical music. Whilst it seems obvious now that many composers don’t have keyboard skills, the immortal image of powdered wig, manuscript and piano-forte is hard to shake for many, including my younger self. When I first began to consider a path in music, I hit a wall – “you’ll need to play piano, if you want to do this”. I was fourteen and head-over-heels for the singing lessons I’d just started, but my single-parent couldn’t really afford. I’d been making fast progress, but music seemed to be the only subject at my state-school where improvement meant extra-curricular expense and further financial worry. Despite early intrigue, the piano was never an option; I’d been limited to precious pockets of time at family friends’ houses, left alone at parties with crooked and friendly uprights. The well-loved wood and German gold lettering felt homely, inviting you to meet their quirks, broken strings and forgiving sustain pedal. There was something worn and resolute about the scores that would rest on them; a secret graphic language that I wanted so desperately to understand. When I would eventually learn to read music in my mid-teens, I fell deeply for notation. Scurrying away every moment possible, I’d carefully hide my theory books under my work in other lessons. Written music would no longer be an unknown cipher; I finally had the key and was cracking the code to a new musical world.

When I learnt what a composer was at sixteen, I heard myself articulated for the first time; the yearning to be within sound and endless lunchtimes spent ‘being on Sibelius’ suddenly made sense. I decided to pursue music, but at the time, many higher-education courses still had a prohibitive keyboard skill requirement. Systematically, I went through every composition course in the UK, discounting those who specified the dreaded ‘Piano at Grade V or above’. Among musical friends, it was not uncommon to hear each other ask “why didn’t you apply to x?”, a question simply answered by “I don’t play piano.” This was a cyclic part-truth, part-un-truth perpetuated by the emphasis on virtuosity and graded exams in my musical education, where a lack of skill was so often seen as a question of ability, rather than opportunity. On finer research, I found that many institutions did allow non-pianists, but this was often veiled in an understanding that you would be at a significant disadvantage during the course. In some circumstances, it was even expected that you would forfeit a second-study for basic piano lessons, or would need to reach a Grade V standard in your first term as a condition of continued study. Despite sad feelings of exclusion during my applications, my love for the traditional endured, manifesting in a wide-eyed obsession for miniature study scores, notation and composer of the week podcasts. It was as though the absence of the piano, and everything it represented, only made me want it more.

Speaking with Scott McLaughlin, we shared this curiosity in a mysterious world of classical music. “I taught orchestration and instrumentation for a while when I was in Huddersfield and I really loved it… there was a real feeling of not coming from this place and finding this treasure trove of techniques and arcane information and understanding”. Principally a guitarist when performing, McLaughlin describes his teenage years as a meandering path through bands, experimental rock and figuring out chords next to his tape deck. “What I started to get into was what I now know as new music, so I just wandered into a degree and went that route”. Until university, piano hadn’t played a part for McLaughlin, but he recalls picking up some basic skills whilst studying – “it was really just a kind of ‘everyone else does this, so I guess I should figure some of this out’. I like Chopin, I like Rachmaninoff, so it was crazy for me not to try and play very, very simple things”. Today McLaughlin can muddle his way through a basic piano part, but like me, struggles when two hands need to move at once. Being a skilled guitarist, his limited keyboard skills haven’t been a barrier to his work and he has developed a compositional practice away from the piano – “I’d say for the last ten years or so, I don’t think of composition in terms of notes… I don’t sit down and think ‘G is a nice note, I wonder what I should put after G’”. McLaughlin describes himself as actively avoiding the piano in his practice, and it was the lack of continued interaction with a given note that was of most significance to him. “I tend to think always in terms of the instrument doing its own thing, and because of that I mostly avoid instruments that aren’t continuous. With a violin, you have a continuous feedback from the instrument”. He talks about the piano as being firmly rooted in an event paradigm, representing a series of tempered pitches that you press and no longer have control of. Without electronic intervention or significant preparation, the piano is ultimately constrained to this pattern.

In his teaching, this approach provides a starting point that encourages equal care and consideration to the individual characteristics of other instruments. “When I teach instrumentation, I mean thinking from the instrument… I do so many lessons where the first sentence is ‘a clarinet is not a piano, a guitar is not a piano, a harp is bloody definitely not a piano’. I spend a lot of time deliberately sending students away from the piano because the keyboard paradigm is so central to thinking about notation on a five line stave”. In breaking the cycle of a pianistic approach to composition, McLaughlin also encourages students to engage with sound as a continuous form, exploring the potential for subtlety and change within a line. As a singer, I recognised this tendency for specificity in my own music; after a series of vocal transcriptions during my undergraduate degree, I began to see the flourishes and natural variation of the voice instinctively transfer to the instrumental lines I was writing. Had I been a pianist, I wondered to what extent I would seek the delicate moments that shape and influence so much of my music.

Donna McKevitt is a composer for film, contemporary dance and concert, who shared my early experience of barriers to the piano. Coming from a “normal, working-class family”, McKevitt describes a complete absence of classical music in the home. A chance encounter at four years old would change this – “I saw someone on telly playing the piano and I was just… ‘whoa, I want to do that’. I went straight to my Dad and said ‘please, Daddy, please can I play the piano’, but we couldn’t because it was too expensive”. Whilst piano was sadly out of reach for McKevitt, she did have a recorder – “I would just sit and improvise for hours and hours”, a self-professed ‘freaky kid’ image that will no doubt resonate with so many other composers’ early interest in sound. Her love for music continued and eventually she had the opportunity to play violin at school, later transferring to the viola that would become her main instrument. “A lot of composers play the viola - my theory is that we’re in the middle; in the middle of the quartet, in the middle of the orchestra - so you’re just getting all of that [sound] for years without realising it… immersed”. After studying Music at Kingston Polytechnic, McKevitt toured extensively with madrigal-rock band Miranda Sex Garden, and describes incredible years constantly writing music with the group. Her first solo release as composer came in 1997 on Warner Classics with Translucence, a song-cycle setting the poetry of film director and activist, Derek Jarman.

In her compositional approach, McKevitt has found a confidence away from the keyboard and in her own way of writing – “I just produce work for an ensemble, and then they get [the score] – they don’t really know the process I’ve been in.” Her methods vary for each project, depending on the brief and how her ideas emerge. Occasionally, this will involve the piano to capture pitches or her MIDI controller to input them into software, but this is not always the case. For her current project for ensemble Voces 8, McKevitt is using a blend of manuscript, Logic Pro X and Sibelius to create the music. The freedom to work in such varied ways strikes me as a creative gift, perhaps afforded to McKevitt through her ability to think beyond the eighty-eight keys of a piano. “I’m probably quite a linear composer… I literally think of one line at a time, and I’m aware of everything around me”. In a recent commission, she recalls opening a project on Logic Pro X, throwing notes onto it like paint on a canvas. What followed was a deeply instinctual and subconscious process, where she created a piano part completely through improvisation that she would in no way be able to play or replicate again herself. After tidying up the score, she improvised vocal lines on top, editing and moving them around freely as she went. Through a process of active and repeated listening, McKevitt makes decisions about where the music will go next, gradually carving out the work until it reaches a completed state. “I have a feeling, that’s not how you’re supposed to do it, but I don’t know; I’ve never had a composition lesson”. Through her self-taught practice, McKevitt has created a space for instinctive ideas and feels strongly that her music would be different if she could play the piano. The keyboard brings with it ever-present shapes and patterns, difficult for a composer to remove themselves from, once they have that skill. McKevitt’s work emerges away from those constraints, bringing fresh energy and organic movement to the music she creates.

Of all the composers I spoke to, it is the work of Supriya Nagarajan that is perhaps most far removed from the dominance of piano in contemporary western music – “I have absolutely zero connection to the piano, because I just don’t play it. It’s not an Indian thing”. Nagarajan is a Bombay born Indian composer and musician, who studied Carnatic Vocal music from the age of five, where the piano had no place within her musical education or experience. After a successful career in the banking sector, Nagarajan decided to pursue music full-time, founding UK based arts organisation, Manasamitra, in 2005. Her work as a composer is very much her own, but is notated through close partnership with the musicians and ensembles with whom she collaborates – “I need to understand the brief, I need to understand the background they’re coming from”. Nagarajan’s close attention to detail is a reflection of her considerate personality, but also the professionalism she has transferred from her previous career in business. Within this, Nagarajan plays close care to the inclinations of her commissioning player; “there are some people who are really sensitive players, so they capture ornamentation really well, and there are others who have an almost bombastic approach to their playing”. From these starting points, Nagarajan works from a visual picture, which helps to inform the material that will eventually create the piece. In a current work for Kingma Flute, Nagarajan is asking the player to initially improvise from an image of a spring river walk, describing this place in such great detail that I felt I was there myself. “You’re going for a walk on a river path, and you come across a weeping willow. You sit down and it’s a spring morning, there are birds, a little sun, maybe some clouds”. On this image, the player will improvise ten minutes of material, which will then be sent back and forth until the piece comes to fruition.

It is also of importance for Nagarajan to understand why, as an Indian musician, she is being commissioned – “why do they want Indian undertones? Is there an Indian focus to [their] work, or is it because [they] like the Indian notes that I could bring to the equation?” Essential to this is the tuning of the players instrument and its temperament, and finding a way that is comfortable for the musician to perform with Nagarajan’s harmonic language. “I was commissioned at the end of last year to write a twelve minute piece for flute and piano and they have never done any Indian music before, but they wanted to diversify their improvisational capacity and their musical knowledge”. She began by sending the duo a number of scales, asking them to choose the ones that spoke to them the most. The piece will be a combination of set musical material and improvisation that is guided by Nagarajan through video calls and collaborative sessions. In Nagarajan’s music, there is a personal journey between composer and performer, that creates work uniquely crafted for the individual.

Based in London, James M. Creed is a score-maker and composer-performer, who is almost entirely concerned with notation within his compositional practice. Whilst Creed had some early piano lessons as a child, it didn’t stick, but the instrument holds a central place in much of his music – “I love pianos… they’re friendly furniture that’s just sitting there.” His delight for the instrument reminds me of my own early meetings with the piano, and we discuss the idiosyncrasies that make it so unique. “It’s a very strange instrument in so many ways, because you sit down at them and to an extent you don’t make the sound happen; you press a button and then the machine acts and levers do things”. Creed is a volunteer-in-residence at Pembroke House in south-east London, and during lockdown has been living in an annex to the centre, where he had daily access to a Steinway piano. “All my pianist friends are really angry; I just have a Steinway at home now, which is ridiculous”. In response to his time fumbling at the keyboard, Creed has written a series of lovingly crafted studies, which he describes as “six different ways of encountering the piano”. The recording of these works, released in March 2021, features Creed himself playing – “there’s nothing mechanically tricky at all in there… I try for the idea that a nine year old who’s spent a bit of time with the instrument could play this piece, and someone like Philip Thomas could also play this piece. Neither would be more successful.” There is a welcoming invitation in this, and for the first time in a while, I feel excited by trying to play the piano myself; after Creed sends me the scores, I decide to play the studies when I next find myself with one of these affable instruments.

Georgia Denham is a composer, singer and part of Sound and Music's New Voices 2020.

georgia-denham.com  / @georgialbatross  /  @georgialbatross