Thursday, September 01, 2005

Together = (Together + Separately)

The phrase is scrawled throughout my old technique and repertoire books, "hands separately, hands together," and penciled variations are now just faded warnings: "hands alone, hands together," "left hand alone," "L.H. separately," "L.H. ALONE!!!" (The left hand had dependency issues.) The relationship between a pianist's hands--separately, and one to the other, and then together--is nurtured through practice and patience: learning the technique begins with scales, where the hands must first master separate fingerings but eventually play together in unison, while applying and refining the technique is forever a pianist's pastime. It is easy enough to play scales "hands separately," but the trick of putting them together is often what makes or breaks a beginning pianist. (Scales are sort of like fractions: you either get it or you don't.) With thorough training in basic technique (arpeggios, too), the two hands learn to function quite naturally as one bipolar unit; one hand can play wild filigree while the other remains rhythmically grounded, or the two can navigate complicated unison passages in perfect synchronicity, regardless of which individual fingers play which keys. The hands automatically negotiate their "separate" or "together" roles and allow the mind the freedom to focus on other musical issues.

Leave it to Mr. Ives to introduce dysfunction into a harmonious relationship. The art song "from The Swimmers," for example, thwarts the co-operative relationship that most well-trained piano hands take for granted, though at first glance it looks like any ol' piece of nineteenth century piano music. A casual, lilting figure in the right hand is accompanied by a flurry of notes in the left. Yawn. But wait, there is some fine print at the bottom of the page:
Until the figure changes...the left hand continues the phrase (prestissimo), but not necessarily the exact number of times or in the relation, to the right hand, indicated.
Not in relation to the right hand? Well, the concept is clear enough, but sitting at the piano my hands cannot help but attempt to equalize the score, to gauge a distance with the eye and fit the two parts together approximately, or (worse?) to hear the left hand very metrically and let the right hand lazily fall into place. Ives is onto something, though, forcing the pianist to divide left from right: the one hand, "plunge[d] into the cool green dark" of the ocean, swims "against a cold turbulent strife." The song conveys its meaning to the performer literally--physically--and reminds one of that day just before being able to play scales "hands together," when each hand, still fiercely attached to its independence, fought against being joined to another.

Although the song concludes with the swimmer's mastery of the pounding sea (a smug, three-hands-please D major pile-up reinforces the point), the best piano hands play a more graceful game of give and take: right against left against right, separately and together--together in harmony and homophony and together in dissonance and counterpoint. Struggling through the Ives reminds me of their remarkable relationship. The two hands seem disembodied at times, functioning separately--together--solely for the purpose of making this great music; no wonder pianists tend toward the neurotic!


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