Q&A with Jürg Frey and Keiko Shichijo about Les Signes Passagers and fortepiano
“My music is not very rhetorical, and certainly not dramatic, but in the background these emotions sometimes lurk, and in Keiko’s playing you can sense them.” – Jürg Frey
“We talked about a lot of things and really felt like we were creating a sound from scratch together.” – Keiko Shichijo
Yuko Zama (YZ): Jürg, when you were commissioned by Keiko to write this piece for fortepiano, what kind of music did you envision? Jürg Frey (JF): Keiko and I had been talking about a new piece back and forth for a long time, but one day she sent me an email to make it clearer and to move forward with one idea. I was thinking about a shorter piece, maybe 10-15 minutes. But the next email from Keiko said that she was thinking about a longer piece, maybe one hour. And at that moment, I had absolutely no idea what this piece could be. But later, I saw a way how to start to work. Shortly before, I had finished my 4th string quartet, a 5-movement piece, and so the idea of writing another piece in several movements became clearer. Meanwhile, the idea of writing pieces in several movements was not such a big step for me, since my recent pieces have always been divided into sections and segments. The separation is somewhat a bit more accentuated here. But this new piece is also about coherence and separation in an overall form.
YZ: Were there any differences you were particularly aware of in your mind when composing this piece for fortepiano in comparison to composing pieces for modern piano? JF: We often compare these early pianos to the modern piano, but the big step in music history was the step from the harpsichord to the piano. And what I had particularly in mind when I wrote the piece was the emotionality that changes completely with the change from harpsichord to pianoforte. And it's always the same with these changes: you have to give up some of the most fascinating and wonderful qualities of the harpsichord in order to enter the world of the fortepiano. And this new world has the pianissimo, the shades of individual notes, and the lightness or darkness of notes and phrases. There could be almost dramatic sounds, even without me having written any drama in the score, and just the presence of these low chords, for example, could be dramatic.
Keiko Shichijo (photo by Jürg Frey) - Fortepiano: Replica after Anton Walter (ca.1792), built by Paul McNulty in 1995, from Stanley Hoogland collection (FF-g3)
YZ: What do you find particularly fascinating about the sound and performance of the fortepiano in general?
JF: Following the path of the various recordings of my piano music over the past 20 years is a completely unexpected and fascinating journey of discovery into my own music that I never expected. I mean, my music is sometimes pretty plain, but it also explores a richness of sounds and forms, and this richness has been made to sound wonderful by various pianists.
Keiko is the sixth pianist to have made a substantial recording of my music, and her musical personality and background have given this recording a distinctiveness and uniqueness that is different from any of the previous recordings. It is basically her musicality that makes this recording so special. And then of course it is the sound of the instrument.
I know pianos from this early period quite well, from listening, but also as a clarinet player, when I had the opportunity to play together with fortepiano in chamber music. Listening to these instruments, I also feel the spirit of exploring the sounds of the early instrument makers. The instrument will later go through a great development over the centuries, but here at the beginning, you can still feel everything quite new, fragile. We are amazed by sounds that seem to be there only to delight our ears.
YZ: What is your impression of Keiko’s approach to her instrument?
JF: I love Keiko's recordings of Mozart's works. She emphasises the rhetorical and dramatic elements in Mozart's music. My music is not very rhetorical, and certainly not dramatic, but in the background these emotions sometimes lurk, and in Keiko’s playing you can sense them. These emotions sometimes shine through, not on the surface, but in the way she combines several notes into phrases. She always stays in the atmosphere of the pieces, at the same time you can feel the way I structure the music and search for melodies, and she explores a fine element of rhetoric in my music.
YZ: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Jürg. Now I have some questions for you, Keiko. Can you tell me why you decided to commission Jürg to compose a piece for fortepiano? Keiko Shichijo (KS): When I play Mozart or Beethoven on the fortepiano, the meanings and tastes of the works of that time arise clearly, and in a sense I can travel back in time during the performance. On the other hand, I wondered what would happen if the instruments of that time traveled forward in time to those of us living in the present.
As a performer living today involved in the performance of a historical piece of music, I cannot call the composer and ask, "What was your idea for this section?" or "What do you think of this way of playing it?” No matter how deep you delve on your own, there will always be questions and discussion points. I decided to commission Jürg to write a fortepiano piece because I wondered how I, as a contemporary performer, could relate to such a period instrument in contemporary language.
YZ: What interests or fascinates you about Jürg's compositions and music?
KS: I have known Jürg's works for a long time, and when I listen to his music, I can feel the breath of sound itself, its possibilities, the meanings and shades of silence and pauses, and I feel as if those qualities of sound itself get magnified in his music, I am under a spell. I had no idea what a new piece for fortepiano would be like, but Jürg's name was the first that came to mind when I thought of commissioning a piece.
Keiko Shichijo during the recording of Les signes passagers at Concertgebouw Brugge (April 4, 2023) (photo by Jürg Frey)
YZ: How did you feel when you actually performed this piece Les Signes Passagers? KS: Because of the structure of the instrument, the fortepiano is often used to play rhetorical music that speaks clearly and eloquently to the outside world, where the sound must rise quickly and clearly. One of the characteristics of the instrument is this "talkative" quality. In playing Jürg's piece, it was extremely difficult to find a way to expand the variation of the pianissimo character because the sound rises very quickly. I was trying to create a sound that was not outwardly directed, but rather inwardly directed. Or, a description of something other than words and phrases, which is what I had in mind when I performed this piece.
YZ: The recording session took place in Jürg's presence, how did you feel when collaborating with Jürg on this project? KS: I had a really great time collaborating with Jürg. We talked about a lot of things and felt like we were creating a sound from scratch together.
After the recording of Les signes passagers at Concertgebouw Brugge, April 4, 2023 (Jürg Frey, Keiko Shichijo, Erik Boasson, Hans Kramer, Mirek Coutigny, Wouter Boasson)
YZ:I have a few more questions for you, Keiko. When you recorded Jürg's fortepiano piece Les Signes Passagers, what temperament (tuning) did you use? I was curious about this because I saw that on your Satie CD (2020) you mentioned you used the 'Prince' tuning, which is a mixture of Pythagorean and Meantone tuning, instead of equal temperament. So, I would like to hear your thoughts on the temperaments in the music you play.
Keiko Shichijo - Erik Satie Piano Solo Works (on Erard 1871) (Acoustic Revive 2020)
KS: I'm happy to share my experience about tuning, even though I'm not a tuning specialist. The tuning of Jürg's piece is called "equal beating victorian". It is close to equal temperament, but a little different. YZ: Who decided on this tuning? KS: It was my decision after consulting with Hans Kramer, who was tuning my fortepiano at the recording session. I always consult with Hans (my regular tuner) about tuning for different occasions (e.g. how the piece should sound, or if it's a classical program, in what keys the pieces are written, etc.). We try different tunings and decide which one feels right. Sometimes, when the tuning is changed, the impression of the piece is so different that it becomes difficult for me to play the way I did before (laughs). The way I play changes considerably depending on the tuning. I am not consciously aware of it, but my ears and my body react to it.
Hans Kramer and Keiko Shichijo, working on the tuning a fortepiano
YZ: That is very interesting. What kind of feeling do you have when you play a certain piece of music and you think, "This tuning is perfect!” Is it like a sense of 'oneness' with the music or the composer? Or do you just feel a sense of relief, or a sense of comfort? KS: It's hard to put into words, but I find that tuning helps me create the musical ideas that I have in mind. For example, if I play the same Mozart program in different tunings, one tuning might make me want to play it a little firmer in certain parts, and another tuning might make me want to play it more fluidly, and so on. I think the way the music progresses changes depending on how the color of the harmony changes, but that is really just the world of the senses. If there is a very beautiful harmony in a certain tuning, I might think, "I want a little time to savor this harmony here," when it appears in the piece. But since most of the time it is a quick repetition of events which happen to the music by the choice tuning, I tend to decide by considering the overall impression of the piece: whether it is pleasant to play that piece with that choice of tuning or not, and whether the tuning fits with a picture that will help me with my own musical ideas. I don’t consciously focus on it, but in my case, depending on the tuning, the tempo may also be affected. YZ: When you feel "this tuning is not quite right...", what kind of discomfort do you feel about the piece (or the performance of the piece) in particular? KS: I guess I would say that it doesn't fit the image of the piece, the colors are too intense, too similar and dull, or that the tuning is too messy for a certain harmony in the piece, or something like that. There are also times when I don't know why, but it's as if the music is hard to play. However, there have been times when a piece is not easy to play, but it fits the musical theme perfectly (like Satie's music). So, I can't really judge whether a tuning is suited for a particular piece just based on whether it is easy or hard to play. YZ: And when did you first become aware of the difference in tuning? KS: I think it was when I started playing the fortepiano. At first I didn't really understand the difference, but when I played an organ tuned in the meantone temperament, the sound sometimes seemed to sparkle with a silver color. It was on a meantone organ in a church in Alkmaar, the Netherlands, when I was taking some organ lessons as a student. I know I may sound like a crazy person for saying this (laughs), but I really think that tuning is about a sense of colors and three-dimensionality. The sounds and harmonies suddenly stand out and become like living things. It's as if there's a balance where all these living organisms can be free from each other and not fight with the music. When I choose a tuning, I'm just looking for that. YZ: That is very interesting. I am also very intrigued in the sounds of the meantone organs (like Ivan Vukosavljević's pieces on his album Slow Roads), and also the temperaments of the Renaissance, like Monteverdi's pieces, and of the Baroque periods before equal temperament. When a piece of music written for the period instruments in meantone temperament is played on an instrument in equal temperament, I often feel that it sounds flat and ordinary, but when it is played faithfully in the tuning of the period, it seems to have an amazingly bright and vivid sense of life, a sense of purity and straightforwardness, and an organic feeling of being somehow in harmony with the natural world. It even sounds like a completely different piece. KS: I totally agree, Yuko.
Keiko Shichijo - W.A. Mozart: Solo Keyboard Works (Bridge Records 2021)
YZ: I once read that Mozart loved the meantone temperament. What tuning did you use on your 2021 Mozart album?
KS: On my last Mozart CD, I used the temperament called Nomen 1/6 Comma Modified Meantone. In the meantone tuning, it is like taking the 3rd degree cleanly in the center, but there are some chords that cannot be played because they do not sound good due to the folds in the tuning. But this Nomen 1/6 Comma Modified Meantone temperament was made by someone I know who was trying to use it mainly in the repertoire of the first half of the 18th century.
Hans was tuning an instrument at his house, and when I was recording Mozart, he thought it would be interesting for me to try. Hans himself thought it was a little unsuitable for Mozart in many ways until he tried it. In the classical repertoire, modulations go all over the place, so compared to baroque tunings like Werckmeister, it was rather close to equal temperament.
I am the type of person who finds it interesting to see the harmony colors clearly, but if it is too clear, it sometimes does not fit the music, so I choose it as I like it, with the right "feeling". I thought this Nomen 1/6 Comma Modified Meantone was more like a “round” tuning than a clear meantone, even though it was not the equal temperament. I chose it because I thought it would enhance the dramatic feeling of the 8th and other Sonatas by Mozart.
As for Mozart's love of the meantone, I think that probably includes meantone organs.
YZ: I listened to your Mozart CD and was very impressed by the timbre and resonance of the fortepiano, as well as the power and freshness of your expression, Keiko. It was a surprising experience that renewed my impression of Mozart's Piano Sonatas, Fantasia, and Rondo that I was familiar with, as well as the impression of period instruments.
KS: I'm very happy to hear that, thank you! This recording was received very differently than the conventional impression of Mozart, and while many people found it interesting, some did not like it so much. But I am very happy with their reactions, and it has given me the opportunity to talk to many of you. I am very grateful for that.
YZ: Are there other composers or works that you are interested in performing as a future project?
KS: I haven't decided on the details yet, but I hope to explore a new possibility for the fortepiano a little further.
(Interview conducted in September-December 2023)
Keiko Shichijo and Jürg Frey after the recording of Les signes passagers
at Concertgebouw Brugge (April 4, 2023)
Les signes passagers is an album of seven pieces for solo fortepiano written by Jürg Frey in 2021, commissioned by the Amsterdam-based pianist Keiko Shichijo. It was premiered by Shichijo on February 5, 2022 at the Concertgebouw Brugge during the SLOW Festival. In the same year, Shichijo performed the piece again at the November Music 2022 and later recorded it for this album in April 2023 at the Concertgebouw Brugge in the presence of the composer.