Conductor / Director
Playing with both hands masks the deficiencies of each hand, until one plays with one hand. Initially, it’s like being naked in cold rain. It’s like playing a different instrument.
Ivan Ilić, concert pianist
Maurice Ravel was commissioned to compose Piano Concerto for the Left Hand by Paul Wittgenstein, a concert pianist who had lost his right arm after it was badly wounded whilst fighting at the Russian front in 1914. Wittgenstein, older brother to philosopher Ludwig, subsequently commissioned several composers including Sergei Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten to compose pieces for the left hand only. Ravel wrote his piece between 1929 and 1930; and Wittgenstein premiered it in 1932.
The Concerto is a complex piece: it follows an unusual Slow-Fast-Slow tripartite structure, as opposed to the more common Fast-Slow-Fast, and it makes use of differing time signatures and rhythms, drawing on jazz as a major influence. The mood is sombre and the swift changes of direction are surprising.
It contains many jazz effects, and the writing is not as light. In a work of this nature, it is essential that the texture does not give the impression of being thinner than that of a part written for both hands. For the same reason, I resorted to a style that is much closer to that of the most solemn traditional concertos. One of the implemented features is that after the first part written in the traditional style, there is a sudden change and jazz music begins. Thereafter, only, it is evident that the jazz music is actually built on the same theme as the initial portion.
Maurice Ravel on Concerto for the Left Hand
Contemporary devised theatre, much like jazz music, has consistently resisted easy definition. Both artistic forms have multiple influences and sub-genres which have metamorphosed and tumbled over themselves over the course of more than 100 years. Both play with structure, with improvisation, with rules, with narrative – and it is in this spirit that Michael Pinchbeck’s Concerto has been made.
In Concerto much is made of the Conductor: a figure of authority who holds all the individual musical threads together and vitally, as Ravel would say, who keeps to the tempo. Michael drew this parallel between music and devised theatre, referring to himself as the “Conductor” rather than the “Director” whilst we worked together on Concerto‘s predecessor and partner piece Bolero (2014). During that process the ensemble company composed the material together, writing and crafting en masse, lines of varying narratives zigzagging across one another. Michael led us in navigating our way through it, drawing out complimentary countermelodies and always keeping time.
This new collaborative company has employed the same way of working throughout the creation of Concerto. This theatrical experience is at once a biography of a piece of music and a history of several major figures from the 20th Century, whilst also serving as a provocation, a reflection on war and the healing power of music. It plays with the dualities of complexity and simplicity; silence and shelling; despair and hope.
The piece invites audiences to make connections; to be active viewers by “conducting” the various sources and narratives presented; to embrace the adventurousness of intertexuality, like jazz, to encourage dialogue, reinterpretation and transformation.
A key example of this intertexual approach in action was when, during the devising process, Michael became very fond of a scene from the classic American TV series M*A*S*H. An Army Major retells the story of Ravel’s Concerto to a soldier who similarly has lost an arm during combat:
Don’t you see? Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silenced if you refuse to let it be. The gift does not lie in your hands. The true gift is in your head and in your heart and in your soul. Now you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world.
Major Charles Winchester in M*A*S*H (season 8, episode 19: Morale Victory)
The message is clear – and some of this scene is interwoven into the fabric of our show; borrowed, revised and given new life. Wittgenstein himself could have given up after his injury but his steely determination pulled him through. He said overcoming what must have initially felt like an impossible setback was “like climbing a mountain”. And as we all reflect on the centenary of the First World War and its echoes in the international unrest we’re witnessing today, it is of the utmost importance to highlight the good that comes from tenacity, eloquence, self-belief and how the end of one thing always marks the beginning of another.
Ollie Smith, November 2016
Artist | Theatre Maker | Dramaturg on Concerto
Images: Julian Hughes