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ArtsWatch Weekly: Let there be dark

Music for the Great Eclipse, free at the museum, remembering Katherine Dunn, Brett Campbell's music picks, having babies & more

It might have come to your attention that six days from now, on Monday, August 21, the sun will be temporarily smitten from the sky across the nation, on a path from the Oregon Coast to Charleston, South Carolina. Here at ArtsWatch World Headquarters we had planned to ignore this astronomical anomaly, figuring you’d be hearing plenty about it elsewhere, until we received a note from All Classical Radio.

Wait! Put on your dark glasses!: Antoine Caron (French, 1521 – 1599), “Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers” (also known as “Astronomers Viewing an Eclipse”), 1570s, oil on panel. 36 1/2 × 28 3/8 inches, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The network’s seven Oregon outlets and internet stream, it seems, will be playing an Eclipse Soundtrack from 8 in the morning to noon on the Day of Darkness: little ditties ranging from Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (you might recall it from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey) to Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Debussy’s Claire de Lune, and more. The broadcast will hit a high note at 10:19 a.m. – when the eclipse hits totality in Oregon – with the world premiere of The Body of the Moon, a commissioned piece by Desmond Earley, performed by Portland’s Resonance Ensemble, cellist Nancy Ives, percussionist Chris Whyte, and improv vocalist Erick Valle.


Pianist Christina Kobb: Playing it 19th century style

Norwegian pianist explores technique and expression by using older performance methods

Virtually all classical pianists play 19th-century music, but because live recordings of early romantic music don’t exist, no one alive today really knows what 19th-century piano repertoire sounded like in 19th-century performances.

Christina Kobb might have a better idea than most. While studying at Cornell University in 2010, she came across 19th century piano pedagogy books that at first made her giggle because of how much their instructions differed from what Kobb, now Head of Theory at Barratt Due Institute of Music and a Ph.D candidate at the Norwegian Academy of Music, had been taught while growing up in Norway in the 1980s.

“What?” she thought. “I have university degrees in piano and I have never been taught to sit like this or hold my hands like this.” She said she at first dismissed these methodologies as merely cute, old-fashioned approaches. More important than physical approach, she thought, was the sound coming out of the instrument. But eventually she began to wonder: what if we are restricting ourselves to playing the piano based only on what we have been able to hear, what Kobb likes to call “gramophonic stereotypes”? What if by following 19th-century piano pedagogy methods, we are able to access the sound of that century and perhaps discover a more intimate musical connection? She decided to take a risk and try it out.

All Classical Portland and the Scandinavian Heritage Foundation invited Christina Kobb to present her findings through performance and lecture at Nordia House, the new Scandinavian cultural arts center in Southwest Portland.

Elbows in: Christina Kobb demonstrates 19th century piano posture. Photo:

Elbows in: Christina Kobb demonstrates 19th century piano posture. Photo: All Classical Portland.

During her lecture in Portland on Saturday, Kobb outlined the details of her technique and demonstrated 20th/21st century piano technique next to her 19th-century technique, what she calls “reconstructed piano technique.” Rolf Inge Godoy, a professor of musicology at the University of Oslo, recently measured the motion of her hands using optical motion capture and scientifically recorded the change in physical motion. You can read more about that research project in this recent New York Times article.

In Kobb’s Portland demonstration, the reconstructed technique helped her achieve a more fluid and free sound at the keyboard. She played Hummel’s E Major Etude, op. 125 first using the modern technique and then the reconstructed technique. Take one felt heavy, stilted, and stuck in the sludge of weighty arms. Take two felt less constrained and the music flowed not from her arms but from the deft action of her first and second finger joints.

Going home and playing through early Romantic works, I can produce both the weighty, sticky phrasing or the flowing, lighter phrasing using my imagination, albeit employing a more Philistine technique. Her presentation raised questions for me. How does my body motion enhance or detract from the sound I want? What kind of sound am I imagining for early Romantic piano works and how can I broaden this imagination? Does Kobb’s technique provide more breathing space for my musical imagination?


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