Mabel Kwan Photo by Nelson Fitch

5 Questions to Mabel Kwan (pianist)

Mabel Kwan is a Chicago-based pianist who specializes in contemporary music.  She is a frequent musical collaborator, with projects ranging from a series of commissions for the toy piano to her duo with percussionist Andrew Bliss, Nothing in Common.  She is also a member of Ensemble Dal Niente who are currently undertaking Georg Friedrich Haas’ in vain for their upcoming concert at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts in Chicago.  Prior to this concert, Kwan will be performing Haas’ Trois Hommages at the PianoForte Salon.  Haas’ piece, dedicated to composers György Ligeti, Josef Mattias Hauer, and Steve Reich, calls for one pianist to play on two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart.  I spoke to Kwan about the composer and preparing for her upcoming performances.

What has been your experience of practicing on two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart? Has it been disorienting or did you find yourself adjusting fairly quickly? You also have performing experience in the prepared piano repertoire; are there any similarities between practicing these two methods?

I got used to the sound pretty quickly, but the physicality and fatigue of being stretched out between two pianos and having your hands at an awkward angle on the keys hasn’t gotten less uncomfortable. Still, it’s fun and awesome to get to play two pianos at once and to hear the notes between the keys.

I’d say practicing prepared piano is a bit different because each note in a prepared piano piece has its own sound. In this Haas piece with two pianos, each printed note is associated with two pitches, and that can throw you off visually and aurally, especially in the second movement where it’s all scalar.

Photo by Nelson Fitch

Photo by Nelson Fitch

 Do you see a conceptual continuity among the composers chosen for the Trois Hommages (Ligeti, Hauer, and Reich) leading up to Haas? Does each movement seem like an “in the style of…” piece, or more like a Haas piece with discernable influences from the attributed composers?

Each of the movements is process-based, repetitive, and minimal, so in that way there’s a strong conceptual continuity between all three composers and Haas. Each movement seems to allude to another keyboard piece of each of the composers. The first hommage reminds me of Ligeti’s harpsichord piece Continuum and the first movement of his Three Pieces for Two Pianos, which are themselves a sort of portrait of other composers, including Reich. The third hommage begins with the same pitches used in Reich’s Piano Phase, though Haas is kind of “phasing” in his own way by using pitch rather than time. You’ll hear patterns where the groups of notes are trying to get closer to each other, but never quite sync up because they’re a quarter-tone apart.

Microtonal piano music has been around for nearly a century yet it’s never really had its heyday; are there any trends in the contemporary repertoire that suggest that it ever will? Personally, has learning this piece sparked further interest for you to seek out or possibly even commission microtonal pieces?

I’m not aware of any trends that say microtonal music specifically for piano is going to become big; the acoustic piano is unfortunately kind of an unwieldy and inflexible instrument to make microtonal. However, there are interesting possibilities with programming and using a keyboard, and the two pianos with one detuned has lots of possibilities as well. I’d be interested in playing a program sometime that includes the Haas, Ives and/or Kondo two piano pieces, along with newly commissioned pieces for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart.

After your solo concert, you will also be playing accordion for Dal Niente’s performance of Haas’ in vain.  Has learning that piece provided a similar experience in putting the music together (though for much larger forces)? What about on a theatrical level? There seem to be elements of physical struggle within both; the Trois Hommages asks a single musician to play two differently tuned pianos in a rather fluid fashion, while in vain asks for a degree of heightened listening from the musicians as they are forced to play certain sections in complete darkness.

There is a similarity between both pieces in that they require unusual physical endurance. Haas also seems interested in creating a disconnect between what you see and what you hear which is something that affects the performer as well as the listener. In the piano piece, often I have the same sets of keys in both hands or I’m seeing the same pitches notated on the page, but the unisons that I’m expecting to hear are not there, and I have to separate what I see on the page or feel in my hands from what I hear in order to not get confused. In the large ensemble piece, Haas creates this disconnect with lighting effects.

Movement III of Haas' Trois Hommages

Movement III of Haas’ Trois Hommages

The request for a “mechanically unchanged” tempo throughout most of Trois Hommages suggests that Haas is looking for a strictly process-based music.  While this piece is not physically impossible to play, do you ever feel that your role might actually be better served by mechanical means? This might be similar to how Ligeti took after Nancarrow by transcribing some of his etudes for player piano, including those that had been performed by actual pianists.  Perhaps more directly, what is it that the pianist brings to this piece?

In the performance instructions for each movement, Haas writes things like “the performer can choose any number of repetitions, taking into account… their disposition on the day… The pitch changes are made at random places, also depending on the performer’s current condition and disposition.” He emphasizes this for each movement, so I think an important element of this piece has to do with pushing the physical limits of the pianist. The risk and unpredictability of having a live pianist playing both pianos becomes an important theatrical aspect of the piece.

Tickets for Mabel Kwan’s solo recital can be found here, and for the Dal Niente concert here.  For more news about the pianist, visit