Nous avons déjà développé ce sujet le 21 août dernier dans notre article : “Une star est née – Amira Willighagen la Maria Callas du 21ème siècle”, un article a toujours un petit caractère d’aventure, ainsi en est-il de l’écriture d’une façon générale et de l’art d’une façon encore plus générale. Vous allez en entendre parler plus loin. Tout a commencé il y a quelques jours à la Galerie Philomuses (voir : Un duo made in La Cité – Le Duo Nishi à la galerie Philomuses, 14 Octobre 2016 ) quand Daniel Guillaume a eu la bonne idée de nous inviter au concert que l’association Le Cercle du PONT des ARTS’MONIES, qu’il dirige, organisait dans ses locaux. Nous ne pouvions bien sûr pas rater ça, mais nous n’avions pas pensé y retrouver les deux charmantes musiciennes du duo Nishi, qui avaient, c’était logique au fond, elles aussi été invitées. Nous avons donc pu tous ensemble apprécier le Récital romantique Chopin-Schumann avec Dimitri Malignan au piano.
Et quand nous nous sommes retrouvés au cocktail, quoi de plus naturel que de penser que ces deux musiciennes talentueuses étaient mieux placées que moi pour rapporter les qualités évidentes de ce concert. Aussi entrepris-je aussitôt Nicky, que je connais de la Cité depuis des années, sur ce thème. La réponse atout de suite été positive et elle m’a précisé que sa contribution prendrait sous la forme d’un dialogue entre elle est Noa, sa partenaire dans le duo Nishi. Voilà une très bonne idée ! ai-je répondu.
Cinq jours plus tard je recevais la transcription du dialogue annoncé. En lisant, j’ai pu me rendre compte rapidement que du pauvre Dimitri Malignan il n’était pas question une minute – je vais donc devoir m’occuper de lui personnellement. En revanche Nicky et Noa font part de leurs intéressantes réflexions sur la musique et sur le métier. Grâce à elles nous pénétrons dans les coulisses pour voir, non l’envers du décor, mais la préparation des artistes, leurs interrogations, leurs angoisses... leur courage. C’est un témoignage exceptionnel et il nous reste à espérer qu’elles feront école auprès des très nombreux musiciens de la Cité internationale qui ont certainement, tous, des choses très intéressantes à raconter.
Le rédacteur en chef
Nicky Purser 25 October 2016
Nishi Duo chat about their musical relationship and their perspective on contemporary music performance
Noa Mick and I have known each other for just over four years, when we met as residents of the United States Foundation at the Cite Internationale Universitaire of Paris. We began playing together two years ago. Noa now lives in Basel, Switzerland, pursuing a master’s degree, and we are adjusting to the greater distance between Basel and Paris. I had the following conversation with her Tuesday. We reflected on our relationship and what it means to perform contemporary music.
Nicky: So we met at the FEU four years ago, I think we gained respect for each other as musicians through our resident studio classes, hearing each other play. What do you think about how we work together, and what makes it work when we play together?
Noa: I think the first thing was that we were friends and we appreciated each other professionally before starting to play together. When I first approached you I had this radio appearance, and I needed a pianist for a recording. We recorded the piece Lamento and Rondo by Pierre Sancan, made a video out of it, and it was pretty good. I was very happy with the recording, even though I don’t usually like that piece so much. That piece is very competition-like, where if you are able to just play the notes, without bringing in any musicality, it would be ok.
But when I heard our recording and when I played it for people, they asked me if we were friends. My family and my cousins heard it, and they could hear through the music; I didn’t even say anything beforehand. They were able to feel this connection that went beyond just the notes. And we hadn’t rehearsed much before, and it just worked.
So I started to think. What is does it mean, having a chamber music ensemble versus having an accompanist? Then came all these projects that really needed something that goes beyond two people playing their parts correctly and in place. So I thought maybe we have something going on, something worth putting in the time.
Nicky: What I saw in you is that you are very serious about doing this music and I know that you work very hard as a saxophonist, on sound on the basic things that go into a piece. When I first heard you play, in one of the studio classes, for me that was when I thought, “ahh, she’s got a great sound.” I like your--just your tone. When we don’t play a certain instrument, it’s about these things that are kind of instinctive; like, why do you like a certain singer? It’s usually that first second when you hear a singer’s voice, what you feel. That’s something I liked. You’re a very sensitive player.
Noa: I think that’s something we both share. I think that’s why it works. I remember that sometimes you would go off stage, and say, “Ah this wasn’t a good performance, or this wasn’t right.” But you’re so sensitive to the music, and you were so into the music, that you could play whatever you want and I wouldn’t care. And it’s still like that, like you say “ah that didn’t go well,” and I have no idea what you’re talking about!
Nicky: That’s how I am. I think that’s how we all are a little bit.
Noa: We all are of course! We can’t all appreciate the good things.
But I think that’s why it works with us. I think a piece is amazing when we play it, and I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. I think there is this point where we’re able to listen and be sensitive to each other and to the overall sound. We come out of our playing and into this common ground or sound zone. That’s when something works, and the audience can feel it.
Working on contemporary music compared to classical repertoire
Nicky: How do you compare working on classical pieces as opposed to a brand new piece of music? What special challenges and rewards are there in contemporary music in general?
Noa: I think the difference between a classical and contemporary piece is what kind of liberty you take. With a classical piece there are more standards, rules, or some basic things that have been determined and that you’re not allowed to (or not supposed to) change. I think the music often speaks for itself. The fact that people know the music, and even if you’re not as precise in performance, i.e., if there were things missing from the performance or the musician’s understanding, people will match it to something they’ve heard and it’ll rearrange in their head in a certain way. If it’s well-played and executed, it will probably still be ok, speaking about the general audience experience.
The problem with contemporary music is that if it’s not very well-played, [meaning] you really did the research and learned things that inspired the composer, or you talked to the composer, or you investigated the piece, you heard other pieces from that time, from the composer, the piece will just not go. It just cannot work, it won’t pass. The audience is just not going to like it. And they wouldn’t know better than to say, “I didn’t like it because of this, this and this.” They’ll just say, “It’s contemporary music. I didn’t like it.” But when it’s well-played, it’s amazing.
So there is this very large mediocre space that is unforgiving for contemporary music and that is quite forgiving for classical music. Of course except for experts in each field. I think that’s an advantage and disadvantage of contemporary music; of course you could go onstage and do whatever, and people might just accept that that’s the piece. But when it’s really good, they will know it. I think the bad side is that a lot of performers--too many-- rely on the fact that people don’t know the piece, that it is already going to sound unfamiliar and contemporary, so they think it’s fine to be a bit lazier. That creates a bad reputation for contemporary performance that’s very hard to overcome. And you really need to defend your music and believe in what you’re doing in order to execute it before an audience that doesn’t necessarily know the piece.
Nicky: I like what you said about knowing what the composer’s intentions are. How many times have we worked on pieces where we are slaving away at it-- over the notes, over the details--, and when we talked with the composer there is something more than that that he is looking for? That’s what has been amazing, about working with living composers, is that usually it’s not about the note-perfect performance in the end. I think that something about the spirit of the composer has to be so much a part of us by the time we perform it.
Noa: I think that a lot of times, a piece that is perfectly executed is not as good as an interpretation in which the artist really understands the piece. It doesn’t necessarily need to be perfect. I know this because I was Jean-Michel Goury’s student. The amount of character that he teaches us to bring to the stage—and you can feel it when he performs. It doesn’t matter what he plays, he defends it onstage and you feel it. The audience is blown away. That’s the beauty of this music.
When an artist goes on stage and defends what they believe in, as opposed to an artist who goes on stage and you say, “yeah he’s a very good player! He played all the notes!”, it’s not the same.
Nicky: It’s not as interesting, for sure. That’s another thing. The personality of the artist needs to correspond with the music, perhaps.
Noa: It’s rare to find musicians who are such artists. It’s a problem. But it’s really amazing to see when someone is doing it well. For me, as a performer of this music. You can see it immediately.
For me I think it started at the Sorbonne competition with the jury’s appreciation of the artistic aspect of my program choices and my interpretation, especially from Paul Mefano and Vincent Barthe, who are musicians that I deeply respect. it continued on to the recital (in April) that we gave as prize-winners, that had a lot of people attending who I was really curious about how they would react.
Nicky: Because of the contemporary stuff?
Noa: Yes, it was mostly contemporary. I didn’t know how the audience was going to take it. My parents, friends, they’re curious to see what I do. They don’t really know, and I can’t really explain to them what it is I do. But to see that they liked it-- one of the things that stayed the most with me was when my boyfriend Maxime’s dad said it is something you have to come to a concert to experience. You can’t sit at home and listen to the CD, or watch it on TV or something. You can’t. You need to be there, you need to feel it. You need to feel the energy.
That is the point for me. For me it was as if I made this concert worthwhile. I made their time worthwhile coming here, which means this was a success.
And I felt the same after our presentation on Tuesday. People loved, especially the Nodaira because everyone kept talking about that. That guy said he would buy our CD if he could. For me that means it worked, that means it was worth it for them to come to the concert. That’s a really rare feeling for contemporary music. I know that I don’t have this feeling often when I go to concerts.
On the work process
Nicky: When I’m playing contemporary, for example when it’s a piece that has never been performed, I have to work so hard to decipher how the composer writes and what he/she wants. It takes me so much longer to feel like I understand the piece. Like with Movio (Incanto IX), we began in October; just looking at the music was scary. It took us until what, we performed it in April, and we played it for Simone in March. And even then I felt unsteady, unsure, like we were in new territory.
Noa: For me that was such an amazing process that we went through, because I felt with this piece the huge difficulty. I saw it like a mountain and we had to get to the other side. You look at the mountain, and you’re at the bottom and you look up and it was so high.
Nicky: You couldn’t even see the top! I felt we couldn’t even see the end result.
Noa: And the worst thing is you don’t even know if it’s worth the time you’re going to put into this piece. It’s so hard. It demands so much of you. It just looks impossible. And then you decide, “Ok, I’m going for it.”
For me April was a step in the process because Simone had a lot of comments and he wasn’t quite satisfied, and I wasn’t very comfortable with the piece. But then in May, I felt, “This is my piece. No matter what happens you can’t take this away from me. I can defend everything that I do here.” I chose how to execute every single dot, slur, dynamic, musical idea --everything was thought through, one-hundred percent. I mean, you saw how excited he was for us. And it’s amazing, because the piece wasn’t even written for us.
Nicky: But that’s the great thing about this piece, is that it can sound great played by many different people.
Noa: And it is so good that it can sound very different each time. When I heard another interpretation a week after, I didn’t even recognize parts of the piece. It was a different world!
The composer’s language
Nicky: As a classical player, I was overwhelmed by some of the music we played. I had of course dealt with crescendos, accents, these indications befor; I think I know what a Schumann accent means, I know what Chopin means when he writes dolce. But when Nodaira write three p’s (piano) and crazy articulations, the language, it’s so different, and I remember at that time for me it felt impossible. That was what, two or three years ago.
Noa: Often, the reason I have to work on a piece is to combat these natural habits I have. For example, now I’m working on Stockhausen, and I have to work against my natural habits. Almost like making you a robot. And then he wants me to move as if the precise text is your artistic choice and natural to you. I’m playing In Freundschaft, and you need to express the music with movements. You have to get out of your comfort zone and reset yourself on a piece. It’s really hard. I think the moment you notice it the most is when you finish and try to go back to a classical piece, and suddenly you’re not playing. You’re just playing notes, just what’s written on the score.
Nicky: What’s funny for me, is how much easier Chopin was after playing Movio, in every way--
Noa: Well two things happen: Classical sounds easier on one hand, but it’s not easy because you have different mistakes.
Nicky: For me I had to remember the liberty that is expected of me in Chopin. Like the rubato that is expected. I had to tell myself that I had this freedom again. But also, I noticed how much more instinctive it was for me to follow closely score’s directions. After playing music where each note had a different dynamic, and suddenly I return to a piece where I feel, “Oh it’s just a crescendo!”
Noa: I’m glad that I’m doing both classical and contemporary in my studies in Basel now. And I like that we do our concerts that way, mixing styles.
Nicky: It’s nice to refresh the audience.
Noa: But also for us. We need to change our mindset during the concert.
Nicky: What is interesting to me is how composers these days are trying to be so specific in how they write their music out.
Noa: Yeah but you remember how detailed Movio was in his score, we thought he was this calculated, precise person. But ultimately when we talked to him he told us “yeah it’s fine, it’s fine. Make it soft, make this louder.” And even if he had written four p’s, he still wanted it to be heard. In the end he wanted to hear things, and if he couldn’t hear it when we played, then it wasn’t what he wanted really, because it sounded a different way in his head…
I think in the end, they all want you to feel comfortable playing the piece. You have to add something of your own because otherwise, you won’t be able to bring it to the audience. If you’re too focused on being fast enough, quiet enough, you become paralyzed, and the audience feels it and the piece is ruined. I think composers realize that they should trust you in a way.
Nicky: Trust, and let go.
Noa: Even with Incanto IX being played so differently by different people, Movio likes them all. As long as we get it, we can play so differently from the original recording and it doesn’t matter. As long as you get, you get the essence and you respect the text.
Sharing with an audience
Nicky: I find that organizers of concerts and audiences themselves, even musicians, are quite hesitant to put “too much” contemporary music into a program. But I think we as a duo try to make this music more audience-friendly, by speaking about the music, and by programming it alongside other pieces that can to help give it context. Do you think it’s important to consider the audience’s background when we program music?
Noa: You said it. And we do think about it. We don’t just ignore this fact. You need to bring it in some way to an audience. But I also think people underestimate how powerful the music can be and how the audience can connect. Sometimes you really need to defend it, and convince that you know that you’re aware of the fact it’s different, but it doesn’t mean it’s less good or less suitable for the audience. It needs to be brought correctly.
In general what we do is new to everyone: new sound, sax and piano that’s not jazz, the saxophone going into the piano and losing sense of who is playing. I think it’s worth fighting for it, defending it. I don’t think being on the other extreme is good either. It becomes this elite thing and I don’t appreciate it. It maybe has to do with where I come from, in Israel, where classical is very little played. Growing up, I always thought it was for rich, sophisticated people, not for me. And it’s suddenly not true. The reaction of our audience at Chambon Impromptu Festival reflects that. People said it was different but they liked it. We understand where they come from, and we’re nice people, and we talked to them so they like to listen.
Nicky: I think, well I feel this joy, this excitement, about playing and sharing. Kind of like a kid that gives you a drawing. You like to share something that you’ve cared for and worked on. I think we enjoy sharing that. I enjoy talking about the music that we play.
Noa: I think because it comes from a very personal place for you. Like, “this is what I learned. Let me share it with you.”
Nicky: like a discovery--
Noa: I discovered this music, I want to help show you how to discover it.
Nicky: And I like to say why. Why in Nodaira’s piece, what they can listen to and what they can appreciate about it. I like to give them the key.
Noa: I always keep this in mind. So for example, when I get a new piece, I do research. I look at the score first. I listen to recordings, and listen to the composer’s music. I try to figure out the composer’s style, and how people interpret his music. I go through this huge research before I feel “ah, this is a good piece, this is my piece.” I just feel it’s just not fair to come do a concert, basically with an attitude of “listen to this for the first time. Like it and understand it.” I didn’t even do that! And I do this for a living. This is my specialty, contemporary music, and I couldn’t even do that. I needed the time with the piece. And I feel like it’s just being really pretentious to be like, “you’re supposed to get it.” Why would they get it? I didn’t even get it!
Of course there is a different, maybe added value to hearing a piece for the first time, and letting the music speak for itself. But I think it depends on the occasion. There is a fine line between giving the audience that positive impression as opposed that pretentious feeling of “you’re supposed to understand.
Nicky: It’s true that as you said there is this research and study that is perhaps necessary for anyone to understand and appreciate this music. We as musicians had to take these classes in order to help us understand and appreciate it. So in a way it is a bit elitist, because we had to have this sort of education in order to appreciate this music.
Noa: Yes, in a way music is a bit elitist. I think it always has been.
Nicky: Do you have to go through any mental/psychological preparation before a concert? For example, some performers avoid eating certain things, or do yoga. Do you have a special procedure, or do you avoid certain things the day of a concert? Personally, for example I need to have this time and contact with the score. Everyone is different. What about you?
Noa: I do warm up in the morning. It is my daily routine anyway, so I don’t like to change too many things. Of course it’s a concert day, and that takes a lot of energy, so I can’t do a full day of practice, but I do need that morning warm up that sets me up. It’s important for me to eat well that day. Usually I go through the scores. I go through things in my head that I want to bring out in the peformance. If there’s a passage I’m not feeling sure about, I go through it slowly. And I rest.
But I do things that make me happy. Because that’s why I’m on stage, and sharing this music makes me happy. So I try to keep that spirit going through the day. I try not to think about problematic things that would distract me. Performing has to come from a happy place.
There’s something unforgiving about performing. We know musicians who can get so nervous, even shaking onstage. But in a concert, an audience has spent the time to come and discover music in a live concert. They want to have a good time. I feel like an audience deserves that, whatever our condition may be.