Sally Whitwell

5 Questions to Sally Whitwell (pianist, composer)

20 years in the making, Philip Glass’s complete Piano Etudes will be performed at BAM on December 5 and 6. We caught up with Sally Whitwell, Glass specialist and one of ten pianists on the bill, to find out more.

Sally Whitwell

Sally Whitwell

How has Philip Glass’ music changed you as a musician and a pianist? What do you think his legacy will be when it comes to piano music?

It was the opportunity to record some of Philip Glass’s earlier piano music that really changed me a lot. It forced me to think really carefully about how to shape the music, both at a micro and macro level, so that it has a genuine sense of drama. For me, Glass’s music is constantly evolving abstract narrative that speaks to the listener in a way they cannot describe verbally. It speaks so profoundly but only when it is shaped well.

The question of legacy is an interesting one. Before I played any of Glass’s music, I always viewed him as more of a theatre composer, opera and dance and so on. Perhaps it is the notion that a composer primarily engaged in theatre brings a dramatic shape to everything else to which they turn their hand? The constant influence of the theatrical surely has to have an effect of some kind, however subtle it may be.

This concert features ten pianists of diverse musical backgrounds. How was it decided who would play what? On the whole was there a collaborative nature to the process?

I’ve no idea how those decisions were made! I can’t speak for the others, but I certainly had no hand in it myself, haha. At any rate, I am mostly playing ones that I have played before in other Etudes concerts in Los Angeles, California and Perth, Australia.

Of course, etudes are meant to reinforce specific techniques and aspects of performance – what did you find most challenging about these? Did they “work?”

Certainly there are technical issues on which a player must work very hard, such as a disciplined kind of freedom of the wrist in those rolling arpeggios, a singing tone in the melodic passages, and evenness in all those pulsating, oscillating quavers (Sorry! “Eighth notes”. I don’t speak Americano very well!). Aside from these technical issue however, is that thing I mentioned earlier, the issue of making a compelling dramatic shape from them. It’s not easy to achieve, but if you do achieve it is profoundly satisfying!

Philip Glass - Photo by Steve Pyke

Philip Glass – Photo by Steve Pyke

Beyond the technique, how would you characterize the content of these etudes? Do they tell a story?

Absolutely they tell a story, but perhaps unintentionally! When I performed the first time with Mr. Glass and Maki Namekawa for Perth International Arts Festival in Australia in 2013, I recall standing backstage with the festival’s classical music director Chris van Tuinen. We were listening to Maki play the final etude, No. 20, and afterwards Chris turned around to me and said “Wow, it’s like he wrote his own epitaph”. I would say that these later etudes sound much less like he’s got something to prove and more like he has something intimate to reveal. Creative expression of intimacy like this always makes me feel kind of privileged as an audience, that I’ve been allowed into some room inside that had been locked for a while.

You’ve made a name for yourself in part due to your interpretation of Glass’ piano music. Do you feel a responsibility to communicate on behalf of the composers you perform? Should we ever expect to hear some Sally Whitwell originals?

I wouldn’t say I communicate on the composer’s behalf. It’s more like I show to the world the manner in which I understand the composer. Great composers’ works stand many such interpretations, which is what makes these Glass Etudes concerts so exciting to me. I can’t wait to hear everyone else’s interpretations!

As for my own compositions, yes absolutely you’ll be hearing some soon. I’m right in the middle of recording a fourth album which features a whole range of stuff I’ve written; choral music, art song, chamber music and some solo piano works. Release date is yet to be confirmed but will be sometime mid 2015. Until then, here’s a little piano quintet I composed. It’s a live recording featuring Acacia Quartet and myself on piano.