Piano Play: Amy Briggs performs with two hands and a nose

Amy Briggs (courtesy of the artist)

Amy Briggs (courtesy of the artist)

“This is embarrassing,” laughs Amy Briggs, renowned performer of contemporary piano music. She places her hands to the extremes of the keyboard, leans 90 degrees forward, and then does something that you would have been hard-pressed to see Glenn Gould do in his heyday: begins to plink out the melody of the piece with her nose. The occasion for her unconventional technique is a rehearsal for this Saturday’s opening of the Chicago Humanity Festival, whose theme this year is, appropriately, laughter.

Now, to be fair, she doesn’t do this for every piece. This particular work is an étude by David Rakowski entitled “Schnozzage,” and unlike other études–short musical studies to improve technical and lyrical abilities based on scales, arpeggios, or exercises to enhance lyrical expressiveness–this one is written for two hands and a nose.

“The piece is actually pretty funny to watch,” says Briggs, who seems to take the humor of the piece in stride. “Yet, it’s actually a slow piece, and quite beautiful. That’s the thing that can throw people–you know, it’s got this silly title and it’s a silly concept, but once it starts, the music is quite beautiful. People actually have sort of a conflict laughing at it. It would be much easier if it were slapstick.”

Indeed it would. Aside from the opening moments, the piece alternately glistens with plaintive chimes from the upper register of the piano and menaces with low pedal tones from the lower end. Like many contemporary pieces, it has a melody too complicated to hum, but unlike many, the listener is left with a cohesive template of sound to appreciate. Briggs points out the Italian influences in Rakowski’s compositions, and there are also visible parallels with the shimmering atmosphere of modern French composers, specifically Desenclos. Altogether, “Schnozzage” is a brief and glimmering amuse-bouche of a piece.

But certain questions remain. How do you hit the keyboard without hurting your nose? “Very carefully!” Briggs notes cheerfully, though she jokes, “Not everybody’s willing to. Hopefully your parents don’t feel so bad having sent you to music lessons for so many years only to have you end up playing with your nose.” But perhaps the more pressing question, aside from the funny name and the nose bit, is: How do you make sure the pieces you program interest an audience, rather than turning them away?

Aside from “Schnozzage,” the program for “Humor in Contemporary Classical Music” includes Derek Burmel’s “Coming Together,” a wild “conversation” between a glissading clarinet and cello, and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s very experimental “Floof,” an ensemble piece based on a story by Polish sci-fi writer StanisÅ‚aw Lem in which a man attempts to create a machine that can compose a love poem. Both composers are living and have won a number of accolades–the former a Guggenheim Fellowship, the latter the chair of music director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which he retired from this April to focus more on composing. In general, this translates to music that audiences may find hard to grasp.

The event brings together many of the most respected musicians on the Chicago contemporary music scene, including conductor/composer-arranger Cliff Colnot and the members of Contempo, the University of Chicago’s own professional ensemble dedicated to the performance of classical music. Briggs herself, an award-winning pianist whom the Sun-Times has called “ferociously talented,” is a new lecturer and director of chamber music in the UofC’s Department of Music. Saturday’s concert is also a chance to hear pieces that aren’t often recorded (try to find “Floof” on iTunes), let alone performed live.

And it’s a chance to smile at an art form often maligned as stilted and serious. Briggs illustrates with an example from Floof: “There’s a really great contrabass clarinet solo. Salonen said that basically the idea is taken straight from listening to Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ on his…” and here she pauses to emphasize, “Walkman. Which is kind of funny.”

And not only is it funny–Briggs suggests it just might be interesting too. “That is music that, you know, you might like it or not like it, but I think it would be very hard to be bored by it.”
Fulton Recital Hall, 1010 E. 59th St. October 17. Saturday, 4:30-5:30pm. $10, or free for educators and students. chicagohumanities.org