“I love playing the organ partly because it’s difficult,” says Annette Richards, Music. “It’s physically demanding; you have to absolutely concentrate to play it. But when it’s all working and the music takes over, you don’t have to think about it at all. When that happens, it’s a wonderful experience. And with live performance, you’ve got your listeners right there. You can move them, if you get it right.”
“Music is central to how we define ourselves as humans,” says Xak Bjerken, Music. “It’s not just entertainment. There’s often a spiritual and biological connection that is really important as the pace of our lives becomes faster and faster and we live in snippets.”
For Bjerken and Richards, a large part of their work revolves around understanding the purpose and impact of music, as well as connecting with listeners. The two share an interest in keyboard instruments—for Bjerken it’s piano, for Richards, organ—and they have sometimes collaborated on performance projects as well.
“As musicians, our research is performance—on and off campus,” says Bjerken. “And it’s also making recordings, and creating festivals and projects we organize with our graduate students and colleagues.”
Recently, Bjerken recorded a CD with Miri Yampolsky, Music, that features new music composed by faculty members Steven Stucky and Roberto Sierra, Music. The pieces are inspired by master works by Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann, which are also featured on the CD, hence the title: SCH. The combination of new and old in one package is one of Bjerken’s main interests. “I play both new and canonical works because the way they reflect off each other is very interesting, and it’s a way for the art form to survive,” he says. “If you only play old music in certain settings that are formal, you lose audience. If you mix old and new in unusual manners, and especially engaging and intellectual manners, people get excited.”
Bjerken has just returned from a short tour to the University of Kentucky and the University of Tennessee with his main chamber music group, the LA Piano Quartet. During that tour, the quartet premiered a new composition by Christopher Stark, a recent Cornell graduate in music composition. The piece had an extremely positive reception—which underscores a rare strength of the Cornell Department of Music: world-class performers, musicologists, and composers are all on the faculty and in the graduate student body. The synergy among them makes for a dynamic atmosphere where the creation and understanding of music can flourish, say Bjerken and Richards.
“One of the great things about being at Cornell is that we have both performers and scholars on the professorial faculty,” says Richards, who is unusual in that she is both Professor of Performance and Musicology. “For me, collaborating on projects with Xak is always exciting. The process is creative and critical, the results immensely rewarding, as research informs performance and vice versa.”
Like Bjerken, Richards points to the excellence of the music composition department and its contributions to her own career and work. “I have benefited from graduate students and colleagues who have composed new music for eighteenth-century organs,” she says. “New meets old, past comes together with the future. Eighteenth-century instruments become living vehicles for new art that is really of today. It’s wonderful.”
Thinking about How Music Works
Richards usually plays either the new baroque organ in Anabel Taylor Hall or the mid-twentieth-century Aeolian-Skinner organ in Sage Chapel when she performs at Cornell, but she also travels to other venues. And earlier this year, she recorded Music for a Princess, the first recording of music performed on Cornell’s baroque organ.
When she’s not performing or teaching, Richards turns her attention to her other area of expertise: musicology. Currently she is working on two books, one about music and the gothic around 1800, and the other about the portrait collection of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Both books look at well-known composers of the classical period in an unconventional way, exploring lesser-known aspects of their lives and work and putting it in the social context of the time period.
At the same time, to better understand the late eighteenth-century mindset that allowed composers and audiences alike to embrace the grotesque, death, and the uncanny—the dark side—in their music, Richards is immersing herself in the history and performance techniques of the glass harmonica, even learning to play the odd instrument, which was invented by Benjamin Franklin. Essentially a series of nested glass bowls rotating around a spindle, the glass harmonica is played by running wet fingers along the rims or against the body of the glass, creating humming, eerie notes. In Franklin’s day, Richards explains, people thought playing the glass harmonica was both the voice of angels and the sound that could make a performer go mad.
Investigating music’s past dovetails with Richards’ organ performance even though she doesn’t usually publish research on organ music or organ culture, she says. “The overarching questions in my scholarly work are the same as in my performance: What did people hear, how did they listen to music, why did they listen to it, and what did it mean to them? And when I’m playing the organ, I’m a much better musician because I’m thinking carefully about how music works and about what I’m communicating when I’m performing.”
Listening and Creating
Bjerken takes these sorts of concerns and applies them in his teaching practice. In his office in Lincoln Hall, he shares the space with an impressive grand piano. On a late October day, he’s just finished a one-on-one session with a graduate student working on a Beethoven sonata. The room still seems to hold the memory of the graceful notes that echoed off its walls a few moments ago. “When my students come into this room, our time together is hermetic,” he says. “Nothing intrudes. Creativity takes time and it takes stillness. Students need to be able to think. When I’m teaching, I’m very patient with students both as musicians and as human beings. I’m facilitating ways of listening and ways of creating.”
“Modern performers can look at composers they believe they know and love and think about their work again from a new perspective.”
One way Bjerken is encouraging that process of listening and creating—and thinking—is by overseeing music conferences and festivals. A good example is Environs Messiaen: Nature Rendered at the Keyboard, an exploration of work by French 20th-century composer Olivier Messiaen, which Bjerken co-designed with graduate student Ryan McCullough in March 2015. Including an exploration of Messiaen’s interest in birdsong, the festival was co-sponsored by Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology and Cornell Plantations, where some of the performances took place.
The Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies
The Messiaen festival was also sponsored by the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies, which promotes all aspects of keyboard creation, performance, and scholarship. The center moved to Cornell in 2011 with Richards as its Executive Director, supported by a generous grant from the Mellon foundation. Richards sees the center, which brings world-renowned experts on keyboard instruments to Ithaca, as a feather in Cornell’s cap—over 100 performers and scholars from 50 different countries will have visited in 2014-15. In fall 2014, she directed another of the center’s festival-symposiums, Sensation and Sensibility at the Keyboard in the Late 18th Century. For that one, she performed a C. P. E. Bach organ concerto in a concert that also featured the glass harmonica.
Events like these teach us about the present by looking at the past, says Richards. “Modern performers can look at composers they believe they know and love and think about their work again from a new perspective. When you realize that the sound decayed quickly on old pianos, for instance, you begin to understand how composers in the classical period heard music. And then you understand: it’s as much about silence as it is about sound.”