TransyPods: Interview with Dr. Gregory Partain

Tristan Reynolds ’19 talks “piano-side” with Transylvania University music professor, pianist-composer Dr. Gregory Partain.

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Transcript

[PIANO MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: Welcome to another campus conversation, discussions with Transylvanian University faculty highlighting their interests and pursuits. Here is Tristan Reynolds.

[PIANO MUSIC PLAYING]

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: So I’m here with Gregory Partain in his office. And we’re going to talk about his career as a piano player, as a composer, and as a professor here at Transy. The piece you just listened to was Scarlatti’s Sonata in A Major.

GREGORY PARTAIN: It was originally written for harpsichord, and he wrote 600 sonatas. There are a lot to choose from, but it’s music that translates extremely well on the piano. And the fast movements, the fast sonatas are just so vivacious, and they’re so much fun to play. Very difficult, too.

But this particular one, there’s a famous recording by Vladimir Horowitz, the great 20th century pianist. And I remember listening to this a lot when I was young, that particular piece, and thinking, gosh, if I could ever play like that, how wonderful it would be. So in my adult years, when I was getting ready to make my second CD, I kind of thought it would be fun to go back to this old sonata and see how well I could do with it.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: You talk about picking out this piece for your second CD. When you were working on developing that, did you think about it as developing like, a program, or developing specifically for recording? How did you create that whole? Because it’s a fairly substantial CD. How did you [INAUDIBLE]?

GREGORY PARTAIN: I did think about it as a program that would show many of the varied personalities of the piano. So you’re right, it includes a lot of variety in the composers including one by my Transylvania colleague, Larry Barnes, a piece by him, the “Toccata.”

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: You mentioned showing off the different personalities of the piano. It sounds almost like you think of it as another person or a collaborator in your works. Is that a fair way to characterize it?

GREGORY PARTAIN: Very much so. I mean, I think it’s dangerous if you think of the instrument merely as a machine, an impersonal machine that you have to fight against. So in a way, I try to make friends with whatever instrument I play. If I’m playing a concert somewhere else, I’ll come up, and maybe even tell the piano, hello. And thank it afterwards.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: So you start off with this relationship with the piano. How do you decide what you want to put that relationship to? How do you find the pieces you want to play?

GREGORY PARTAIN: Well for me, I have a great luxury in that I have a lot of leeway in the music that I’m able to choose. And if you’re willing to devote yourself to weeks and months of practicing a piece, and struggling through all the deep difficulties, you really have to start out with a very strong bond, a very strong desire to play that music and live with that music for that period of time.

Now every piece demands a slightly different relationship that you will have with the piano physically, because you’re going to need to develop different kinds of sounds, to conjure different kinds of sounds from the instrument. And so there’s even a physical component to that. And the piano has been around for so many centuries now, and so many brilliant composers have explored it, exploited it, that there’s just a vast variety of different colors and different textures and dynamic ranges and so on.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: One, you mentioned living with the music, and you also mentioned that the piano has such a history of brilliant composers. I’m going to tie those two together because for the past two years, I think, now, you’ve been performing almost all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Is that right?

GREGORY PARTAIN: Right, 22 of the 32.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Why?

GREGORY PARTAIN: Well, there are a lot of aspects or facets to that. But I’d say Beethoven is probably the composer that has been my most constant companion, really, since I was literally in the fifth grade. That was a time when I wanted to quit the piano lessons, and was begging my parents to let me quit. And right about that time in the middle of the year, my teacher at school– not my music teacher, my regular– school received an excerpt of a score of Beethoven sonata, a famous Beethoven sonata, and gave it to me because she knew that I played the piano. And of course, it is way beyond my ability to play, but I tried to play it anyway.

And it was kind of an awakening because that music just inspired me so much. And so to this day, there’s hardly a year that goes by when I haven’t played one of the Beethoven sonata in a concert. Why don’t I play the whole thing of that. That piece that I got in fifth grade, this is from the Pathétique Sonata of Beethoven that he wrote in 1798 when he was in his late 20s.

[PLAYING PIANO]

Well that’s the start. It was very dramatic music.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Yes.

GREGORY PARTAIN: And I’ll tell you, I remember very well what most attracted me to that music– the silences.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Really?

GREGORY PARTAIN: There’s something about the silences that just seems so deep and meaningful. And I just– I had a powerful urge to play that music. I think I must have been a very weird little kid.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: You find this Beethoven piece, or you were given this Beethoven piece. What happens between first playing the that and deciding to play 22 of the piano sonatas? You talked about a relationship with the piano. How did that relationship with Beethoven mirror that, or evolve over time?

GREGORY PARTAIN: Evolve is a perfect word. You know, there’s a famous book about Beethoven written by a mathematician, of all things, named JWN Sullivan in the 1920s. The book is called Beethoven, His Spiritual Development. And to paraphrase Sullivan, he makes the statement that the important thing about the understanding of Beethoven is that his work shows an organic development to the very end. That the music that he composed continued to become more and more profound the older he got.

And so if you can sit back and experience or live through this arc, Beethoven’s creative trajectory, the arc of his trajectory, through all of the 32 piano sonatas, then you are really– you’re participating in something that’s really singular in the history of music. You just, you sense not only that Beethoven’s craft is improving as he got older and more experienced, but also, that he was developing, evolving as a human being.

And I think to bring it back to my own personal relationship with Beethoven, the same thing has happened to me. Of course, I understand the Pathetique Sonata now much differently than I did when I was in elementary school. And the more that I was exposed to the sonatas, and this incredible development of his thought, his musical thought, his emotional, his psychological thought, it’s just quite a journey.

And so two years ago, three years ago when I was devising my sabbatical project, I thought it would be a good time in my own life to try to pull all these pieces together. And that’s when I put the Beethoven project sonata into a format. Seven concerts that I called Beethoven’s Odyssey. And I played the sonatas in chronological order so that any listeners that came to two or three, or in some cases, all seven concerts, they would also experience that journey along with me.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: You arranged them chronologically.

GREGORY PARTAIN: Yes.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: What is your preparation process different? Did you learn them chronologically? Did you approach them chronologically? Or did you–

GREGORY PARTAIN: I just I had to be very practical about it. As a performing musician, I had a finite number of months to prepare. And so I had to map out very carefully how I would tackle the project. And of course, there are several phases in preparing. You’ve got to learn the notes, memorize everything, reach a certain level of technical consistency, solidity. And there’s all the interpretive work or what we sometimes call the inner work on the music.

And then taking it the next step, the last step of developing a certain kind of confidence so that you can concentrate on stage and perform close to your best. So it was a very big project. And you know people have asked me how much time I spent on something like that. And I actually did a calculation for this, for that five months of my sabbatical. And I was practicing literally anywhere from 8 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week for five months.

And so if you break that down, I had 80 separate movements to learn in the 22 sonatas. So that’s about seven and a half hours of music. And it averages out to be two and a half hours of practice per minute of music for that particular project.

It called for everything I had, I’ll be very honest.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Yeah. OK, so you take five months of sabbatical that is just sort of insane constant preparation.

GREGORY PARTAIN: Insane is the word.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: When you started the concert series, did you find that publicly performing the stuff changed your perspective or changed how you interpreted it as you went through the series?

GREGORY PARTAIN: Sure. That’s a great question, actually. It always– that kind of spark of performing in public, it absolutely sheds light– sometimes it’s in very subtle ways– on how a piece might best progress. And there’s kind of a heightened emotional state, of course, in a live performance that is very hard to recreate in a practice room when you’re by yourself. And that spark adds something, for sure, to how you are going to play certain passages.

And so if you’re not paralyzed by fear at that moment of being before the public, then that heightened state of awareness and the heightened emotional intensity can really infuse your performance with that little extra. And then hopefully, you take that with you the next time you play.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: You mentioned not being paralyzed by fear as you perform. How do you avoid that paralysis? Do you have a particular technique? Is it just being so comfortable with the stuff you’re performing? How do you– not in terms of material, but just in terms of the psychology– prepare yourself to go out on stage?

GREGORY PARTAIN: Performance psychology is another vast topic. But I think there’s no simple answer to that. Each person is a little different. But you really struck on something already– that super solid preparation is where it starts. But ultimately, any performer will tell you that they deal with issues like that. It’s never the same playing in front of another human being or playing in front of a microphone compared to playing for yourself.

And I think there’s the preparation, there’s developing during your months of preparation, a very deep connection to the music so that at the moment of performance, that is what is dominating your experience, your connection with the emotions and gestures of each moment of the music as it progresses.

And then also, ultimately, it really comes down to doing the kind of work on yourself through the months and the years so that you have the perspective. You realize that, well, if I’m honest, and I give it my best effort, all I can do is my best on that particular day at that particular time. And I’m a human being, an inconsistent human being that some days will have a peak experience, and some days will have the opposite of a peak experience, a valley experience. And it’s just part of being a human being and being a musician.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Do you have any particular moments of music, either in Beethoven’s stuff or in the other stuff you’ve played, that just strike you as sort of anchor moments? Like you can always go back to that.

GREGORY PARTAIN: Sure. I can think of a handful of moments, the positive moments, in public performances that were just peak experiences. I felt like I was not– I felt like I was totally riding the wave and it brought me gently into shore. And you can certainly look back on moments like that. But also, even moments in the practice room. I mean, I’ll share something very private, but now, I guess it will be public.

But I had an incident several years ago when I was working on the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto, and it was the climax of the second movement, this little movement. And I was sitting right here in this office late at night. And it was so– the music was so beautiful, I just kind of broke out into tears sitting right here on this bench. And if you have experiences like that, that you can bring with you into a performance, or even just look back on how lucky I am to be able to have an experience like that as part of my work.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: You’re talking to these very nakedly emotional experiences. And bringing it back to Beethoven, one of the things he did is sort of inject more outright emotion into sort of very formalistic classical music of the day. Is that right?

GREGORY PARTAIN: Absolutely.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: What does it feel like to have to approach such nakedly emotional music, and then how do you, just on a physical, mechanical level, figure out how to play that?

GREGORY PARTAIN: Yeah, the moments of highest emotional intensity for a performer, there’s always a balancing act. Because if you really give in completely to the music, there’s always the danger that you’re going to start thrashing at the instrument and totally lose control.

So those are the kinds of things you work on in practice. First of all, just having this technical command that I mentioned earlier, but then also experimenting in the practice room with how far you can really let yourself go. And then when you’re at the live performance, especially the first few times in public, it’s always a little iffy. You’re not quite sure how much the adrenaline is going to kick in and either push things up in a good way or on topple things.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Totally OK if you’re not comfortable doing this, but can we take four bars or so of the [INAUDIBLE] or the [INAUDIBLE], whatever you’re comfortable with, and just look at it on a very granular level, how you decide to interpret it. Does that make sense?

GREGORY PARTAIN: Sure. Let me actually go back to the Pathetique Sonata, the slow movement, which I’ve played for many years, and just maybe look at the first phrase or two. But it goes like this.

[PLAYING PIANO]

So some of the performance concerns that go into that is a very basic thing. You always want the melody to be louder than the rest. So this music has three layers in what we call the texture. So there’s the melody.

[PLAYING PIANO]

And so on. And then we have the baseline, which should be probably the next most important. And then there’s the middle part, which is–

[PLAYING PIANO]

And that gives the harmonic framework. So you put it all together. And so the first thing is you would want to play in the same hand the melody louder and the accompaniment or the harmonies softer. And the bass somewhere in between.

Can you hear that OK?

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Yes.

GREGORY PARTAIN: OK. Then there’s a matter of how do you play the melody expressively. And I think first, the first three notes, start with a little bit of a question.

[PLAYING PIANO]

So I would want to grow to the top nodes. But then the next part of the phrase kind of develops that, runs with it a little bit. It needs a crescendo, it needs to grow. So–

[PLAYING PIANO]

Now that bass note than just came in marks time, but it’s important. So I always give it a little extra.

[PLAYING PIANO]

And especially because it’s going to go to an unexpected note. Down. And the melody goes up. So there’s a little tension there.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: OK.

[PLAYING PIANO]

GREGORY PARTAIN: And more.

[PLAYING PIANO]

And I find that moment right there a very warm moment, so I usually put the soft pedal on and change the color of the sound. And then we bring everything to a close very warmly. Like we knew where it was going all along.

[PLAYING PIANO]

So those are the kind of unconscious thoughts that are going through my mind as I’m playing that.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: You might mentioned something very interesting at the end there. You said when you bring it all together, like you know where you are going all along. When you’re playing, do you know where you’re going, or is it just so ingrained, and you’re so in the moment that it’s something of a surprise?

GREGORY PARTAIN: I think all of the above. Because of course, you’ve done your homework, you’ve prepared. It is ingrained. It’s ingrained in your muscles, it’s ingrained in your ear. A lot of times in performance, where the flexibility and spontaneity comes is how much you do something. How much am I going to push the tempo or hold it back. How much am I going to emphasize the crescendo or how much the accents. A lot of the parameters are there, but there’s flexibility within that.

But then you want to be playing so there is a feeling, even within you, of surprise, as if you’re here hearing it for the first time. Otherwise, you’re like an actor delivering the to be or not to be for the 14,000th time. And been here done that, I’ve already pondered my mortality. And when that happens, I think that’s when the magical moments happen in a performance. And they don’t always happen.

TRISTAN REYNOLDS: We’re talking about this emotional performance level stuff. Do you think as a performer, do you think of it as interpreting somebody else’s work or creating something that’s derived from somebody else’s work but it isn’t really totally new.

GREGORY PARTAIN: I think of what I do as being a recreative art. So obviously, we have this tremendous advantage of notes that Chopin or Brahms or Schumann or Beethoven have given us, and they’ve given us this blueprint, really, a blueprint, even though they tell us exactly what notes to play, and they indicate things like, get louder here, and be softer here, faster here. And how to articulate short notes, fast notes. They give us general ideas of tempo.

But it really is up to the performer. I mentioned Hamlet a little while ago. It’s the same thing there. If you have 20 actors playing that role, they will all use the same words that inflect the role quite differently. And partly because of what they’ve figured out, but also partly because of just who they are as individual people on this earth. They bring something fresh to that role. And so in a sense, it really is very much up to the performer to work out the psychological story or the emotional structure of the music, of those modes.

And so in that sense, when things are working well, you very much feel like you’re creating. Creating in the practice room, but also creating on stage.

SPEAKER 1: You’ve been listening to another in our series, Campus Conversations, One on One Discussions with Transylvania University Faculty.

[PIANO MUSIC PLAYING]