This month we hear from Emerging Artist Paya Cajic about music he can’t live without!
It was a beautiful, sunny weekend morning around ten years ago when, as I was passing my parent’s room, by chance I heard something coming from their radio that had me transfixed. It was a piece of piano music – but unlike any piece I had heard before. It was a delicate, warm shimmering – cascades of notes played furiously quickly created waves of sound – amazingly relaxing music. I know that it left a big impression on me, since I heard it through to the end, and to this day still remember the event.
When it finished the radio announcer said: ‘That was Jer Dow by Maurice Ravel, played by (somebody you’re not going to remember the name of in ten years’ time)’. I say Jer Dow when I really mean Jeux D’eau – because to my ears untrained in French, that was what it sounded like. The name means ‘water games’ – and in fact the whole piece is an impression of the spraying, flowing, and dancing of water in all its different forms (although Ravel may have disliked the term ‘impressionist’, he must have been in denial, for it is completely impossible not to apply it here).
Back then I was very keen on trying to find the music online to any piece that I liked. So even though I only had the vaguest idea of how to spell the crazy name, I tried. I must have gotten it close, since I did manage to find a copy online – and I could tell by looking at the score, which looked as beautiful as it sounded, that it was the right piece (and it was also probably my first dose of the impossibility of guessing how French words are spelled from their sound). Of course, I tried playing through it – sight-reading it – like I did with a lot of pieces that were well beyond my ability to perform back then. As soon as I thought I could pull it off (which was when I was around 15), I asked my teacher whether I could learn it. Yes!
Recently I’ve thought a lot about why this piece is so touching. In fact, I did a presentation on it for a high school assessment and was very surprised to hear afterwards that I had made someone cry! Ravel said of the piece:
‘Jeux d’eau, appearing in 1901, is at the origin of the pianistic novelties which one would notice in my work. This piece, inspired by the noise of water and by the musical sounds which make one hear the sprays of water, the cascades, and the brooks, is based on two motives in the manner of the movement of a sonata—without, however, subjecting itself to the classical tonal plan.’
Ravel’s great achievement is, in my opinion, to have created a piece of music that is completely free of tension and yet full of movement. He does this by obliterating the most potent creator of tension – the leading note. The melodies he uses are pentatonic – that is, they only consist of five notes, exactly like some traditional Chinese scales – and the smallest interval between them is a tone. His use of harmony is novel too. Classical and Romantic composers used harmonies to structure their music and to build and release tension – however Ravel uses them purely for colour! His harmonies serve to create the atmosphere in which the entire piece is enveloped – a sort of watery, reflective mist. Through this mist melodies are often heard, but they never impose themselves on top of the music as is the fashion of the great, sweeping melodies of the Romantics – rather, they are part of the atmosphere, also completely free of tension. The harmonies, melodies and incredibly imaginative pianistic cascades that flow through the entire piece are all aimed at creating this impression of water, and do so amazingly well. Whenever I play it for someone who doesn’t know the piece, I ask them afterwards ‘what did that sound like?’ I am not lying when I say that nobody has ever failed to make a connection to water!
If you are interested, there are many fantastic performances of it on YouTube. One of my favourites is Martha Argerich’s – she plays it with a rhythmic spontaneity and colour that perfectly reflects the freedom of flowing water. Though the piece is very hard, the fact that she can play it with complete ease means she plays it with complete freedom – which has been the ultimate aim of all my performances, but which I don’t think I’ve ever achieved. Some day! Sviatoslav Richter’s performance, while also extremely good, I enjoy less because he plays it almost strictly in time – something I feel is unnatural given the aim of the music. Although I did take this piece to a masterclass once, given by pianist Mikhail Voskresensky, and was told that I was playing around with the tempo too much! I suppose it’s both a matter of personal taste, and how natural the tempo fluctuations feel.
While you’re at it, you should also listen to Argerich’s performance of Ravel’s ‘Gaspard de la Nuit’ (Gaspard of the Night) – a set of three pieces inspired by short poems by French poet Aloysius Bertrand, undeniably Ravel’s other greatest achievement for the piano, as well as one of Argerich’s! I think I can guarantee one thing – if you’ve never heard music like this before, you will be surprised and amazed. Both Gaspard de la Nuit and Jeux D’eau are undeniable works of genius.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWu5Dn9gaU8 (Martha Argerich playing Jeux D’eau)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=913UrBBj82I (Richter playing it, also includes a score which follows the video)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91ivVK90_U0 (Argerich playing Gaspard de la Nuit)