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Interview: Nic Gerpe on Piano Spheres

On June 19, pianist Nic Gerpe will be performing an explorative program centered around the idea of “tocar” – meaning, “to touch, to play.” He goes beyond the basic definition of the word to explore other connotations, meanings, and ultimately how the different pieces on the program touch and interact with each other. I had the chance to interview Nic about the program, working with violinist Pasha Tseitlin (Panic Duo), and his relationship with new music. Here’s what he said: 

As you’ve described in your program note, “Tocar” will be a program of works that touch one another, in both obvious and ephemeral ways. With this idea in mind, what are some of the ways the works relate to each other? Which works on the program take a more literal versus indirect approach?

I have wanted to pair Alexander Miller’s Actions and Resonances with Vera Ivanova’s Black Echo for quite awhile. The connection between the two pieces’ titles made them a great fit, in my mind, and I thought that from a purely scientific/acoustical/sound-world perspective Oscillations would be a great compliment to actions, resonances and echoes. Incidentally, I found that “Tocar” can also be translated as “to ring” or “to sound” – words which fit these three pieces very well.

As I started thinking of what other works to program alongside these three, I started finding many more bonds between the pieces. For instance, Corigliano’s Fantasia On An Ostinato is based on a famous piece of Beethoven (7th Symphony, 2nd Movement), Ivanova’s Black Echo takes as its inspiration a lute ayre of John Dowland, and (without giving too many hidden gems away!) Schankler’s Oscillations contains all kinds of references to past music. All of these three pieces are touched in some very direct way by the hand of history, and share that link.

Most of the solo works on the first half of the program also prominently feature repeated-note figurations, but used in many different ways and contexts. The “touch” aspect of “tocar” is also evident in the virtuosic aspect of the works – for instance, Schankler describes the “furious toccatas” in his piece, and of course “toccata” comes from the Italian word “toccare”, which means the same as the Spanish word “tocar”. In Higdon’s String Poetic, the composer utilizes extensive virtuosic writing. As well, the pianist is required to mute several strings inside the piano with the fingertips, creating a totally different type of touch than what we normally associate with piano playing.

I also associate the way that Higdon utilizes these muted piano notes with Saariaho’s description of her piece Tocar – ” One of my first ideas for “Tocar”, about the encounter of two instruments as different as the violin and piano, was the question: how could they touch each other? … In spite of such different mechanisms, both instruments also have some common points, purely musical, noticeably they share some of the same register… I imagine a magnetism becoming stronger and stronger – the piano part becomes more mobile – which draws the violin texture towards the piano writing culminating in an encounter in unison.” Although Higdon and Saariaho’s pieces are incredibly different, the way that Higdon places the muted piano notes against the pizzicato of the violin makes the timbres of the instruments match almost exactly – there are several very striking moments in String Poetic where these two very different instruments actually sound the same.

Pianist Nic Gerpe

Kaija Saariaho’s and Jennifer Higdon’s pieces feature both violin and piano, for which you’ll be joined by Pasha Tseitlin, the other half and co-founder of Panic Duo. How has your work in Panic Duo influenced your playing as a soloist, and vice versa?

I have been incredibly lucky to have worked with Pasha since 2009, and we’ve shared many adventures over the years. One of the biggest ways that working with such a great violinist has influenced my solo playing is in the sense of line and phrasing – since the piano is essentially a percussion instrument, we have to work harder to make the incredibly long, linear phrases that string players can (as well as singers and wind players). The way that a violinist takes time over a phrase, particularly on larger intervals and in the higher registers, definitely has influenced my own concept in shaping a melodic line. Also, the violin’s timbre changes noticeably depending on its register, and what kind of bowing or bow placement the player is using – sul ponticello and flautando playing, for example. A fantastic player like Pasha can really exaggerate these coloristic differences on the instrument. The piano has a much more monochromatic sound than the violin does, but I find that it helps my playing to try and emulate the range of sound and color that the violin is capable of.

What do you typically look for when selecting new works to perform?

I have a “wish list” of pieces that I want to play that only ever seems to get longer! Sometimes I’ll build a program around a single piece and its concept/subject matter, particularly because I love the idea of finding connections between music and people. I also love trying completely new things to expand my horizons – one of my favorite concerts recently was Panic Duo performing on the People Inside Electronics series, because we played an entire program of electroacoustic music for violin and piano, which was something we had never done before. We were very lucky to collaborate with a cast of incredible composers on that concert, and it was definitely a unique experience for us. One of my favorite things about being in LA is that I have the opportunity to work with so many amazingly talented composers, who represent such an eclectic and diverse array of styles and aesthetics.

As a pianist, what originally drew you to new music?

When I was young, my parents raised me on a very eclectic mix of music, very little of which was classical. I grew up listening to jazz, fusion, oldies, and rock. My first piano teacher taught me classical music, but he was also a jazz player. I thought when I was younger that I wanted to play music like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. When I was about 13 years old, my dad gave me a couple albums of Emerson, Lake and Palmer to listen to, and I was completely hooked. Keith Emerson is still one of my favorite musicians. I loved their original compositions, but also their transcriptions and adaptations of Classical composers – I recognized Bach in their output, but they also introduced me to the likes of Copland, Bartok, Janacek, and Ginastera. As soon as I started seriously listening to the output of these composers, I knew that I wanted to pursue contemporary music. And listening to these composers led me to Messiaen, Crumb, Szymanowski, Corigliano, and down the rabbit hole I went!

For more information about Nic’s upcoming concert, or to get tickets, visit Piano Spheres

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