By Lara Saldanha
A few weeks ago, I experienced one of those special performances that captures your imagination entirely and yanks it in a new direction. Pianist Eunmi Ko performed Morton Feldman’s “Three Dances,” playing and dancing at the same time, followed without break by a set of three from Granados’ “12 Danzas Españolas,” just playing. Ko danced during the rests built into the Feldman, as if reacting to the phrases by sitting and standing, turning her head, moving her legs and feet, peering into and under the piano, and playing percussion and piano simultaneously in the last movement. The performance was entitled “Perspectives,” and it certainly provided a shift of perspective, inviting me to listen visually as well as aurally.
I spoke with Ko about her experience discovering and curating her interdisciplinary performance of Feldman’s “Three Dances.”
Lara Saldanha (LS): You spoke during the concert about your journey discovering Feldman’s “Three Dances” and creating this performance. Could you tell me more about that?
Eunmi Ko (EK): The piece was written in 1950, when Feldman moved to New York City. It’s when he met John Cage and would hang out with him in his apartment. It was originally written for a pianist and a separate dancer. I actually was probably looking for something else when I found it but I ran into this video of an Italian pianist and composer—she’s quite an artist—Debora Petrina. She also played and danced at the same time, but I wasn’t really sure if the piece also has instructions for the dance part, if it’s improvised or not.
I started looking for the score but I couldn’t find it anywhere, so I emailed the State University of New York at Buffalo. That’s where Feldman taught for a long time and they have an archive with all of his stuff. I emailed the librarian there, who was kind enough to respond. They didn’t have the score but suggested contacting Miss Petrina or the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. I contacted them both at almost the same time. Miss Petrina said she got this music from the Paul Sacher Foundation, who replied saying they have a copy which was never published. I had to fill out a very simple form to get the score by mail. It just looks like scribbles, you know, just some notes which are hard to recognize!
LS: How was your preparation process different to be able to play and dance?
EK: It was really fun. I contacted a dancer who teaches here at USF, Jean Travers. I met with her and she asked me to play anything in my repertoire, so I played Bach for her. She observed and said, “You know, you have some movement when you play. Maybe we can develop ideas from what you’re already doing naturally as a pianist rather than come up with something really fancy” because I’m not a professional dancer! It’s interesting, I started listening more to what’s happening between the notes when you have silence. You start putting more meaning when nothing happens, because if you see the music, there are 9 measures of rest, 5 measures of rest,19 measures of rest. It forces you to really listen to the spaces, and that’s when I have my movements. It puts you in a different place.
Last school year in the spring semester, I performed this under a dance-themed program. I played the “Three Dances,” then a Bach French Suite, and then the Schoenberg Piano Suite. There’s a loose connection between this repertoire in how composers view dance. The Feldman gave me new perspective on what is dance. It’s not just steps, but how you have a relationship with the performance space and time.
LS: How did you pick the Granados to follow the Feldman?
EK: This was my summer program, so I wanted something light and contrasting to Feldman. Also, the Spanish Dances are well known, but when you play them after this very foreign piece they sound somewhat different. You get a new view of something that’s very familiar.
LS: What has been your audience’s reaction to this performance?
EK: The first time I dance, people don’t expect that I will move around. It’s kind of shocking but then I think they get it. The feedback is much nicer than I expected. Even people who have never had music education really like it. It’s this almost theatrical experience. I’m curious how it’s going to evolve.
LS: The program of the concert was entitled “Perspectives.” What do you think is the perspective that you like to communicate with this piece or that this piece communicates?
EK: We live in a period of time where there are so many varieties of music. If you are interested in early music, you can only play Bach, which would be perfectly fine, or play the harpsichord. And then there is this wild variety of new music. Composers don’t stick with atonality or one style these days; there are really lots of things out there. Some people compose in a very traditional way. It’s not like the 1950s or 60s when it was a crime to write something tonally. You have so many who are conventional, in a way, like Penderecki who’s going back to a kind of Bruckner, late romantic, style. And then there’s Philip Glass, Steve Reich, all doing different types of things. We have so much variety which audiences still don’t know. They’re so stuck with one kind of music, the things that are always played like Beethoven sonatas or Liszt pieces.
LS: For younger musicians who are interested in interdisciplinary projects, what would your advice be?
EK: I would say start from something very simple, something that you really like and that’s meaningful. If you don’t plan it well, audiences don’t get it; they think, “maybe she’s doing something profound, but I don’t understand it.” I’ve heard many times that music is hard to understand, that it’s something that requires education. Maybe sometimes, but that’s not always the case. So give lots of thought, plan, and put meaning behind why you have to combine these two different things. Is it just because it’s cool or because it really makes sense?
Eunmi Ko currently teaches at the University of South Florida as an Assistant Professor of Piano and she is on the faculty of the Rebecca Penneys Piano Festival. “Piano Perspectives” was part of the Soirée Legacy Series at the Rebecca Penneys Piano Festival.