Sturm Story: Fred Sturm in Conversation
Fred Sturm’s life is consumed by music. This is not a surprising statement and might serve as the motto for almost any musician profiled on these pages. Nor is he unique in that he grew up in a musical family and has played the piano as long as he can remember. And yet, he also admits that he was a somewhat lazy student, developed difficult to correct bad habits, and eventually ended up as a liberal arts major. It wasn’t as if his love for music ever abated. After graduating from college, he independently crammed for enough knowledge of musical history and theory to get accepted to a graduate program, and was awarded with a master’s degree in piano.
“My background as a pianist is certainly rather unconventional, at least among those who pursue music on what they hope is a professional level, giving concerts and recording. Beginning serious study at the age of about 20, based on a somewhat shaky technical foundation, could not be considered an easy path to success, to say the least. As I listen to accomplished young pianists of today, many well under the age of 18, I am astonished by their fluid techniques, and the ease with which they perform the standard virtuosic literature.”
Partially out of practicality, but also because of a unique interest in a specialized repertoire, Sturm has found a way to his own place as a performer. “I reinvented my technique over many years after I had completed my master’s degree, at which point I had, like many young pianists, reached what was obviously a dead end, where physical injury was quite likely and certain technical limits were insurmountable without a radical change of approach. The technique I developed was based on the music I chose to pursue, chiefly music by Latin American composers. I have spent years honing my ability to play Ginastera’s
, rather than Chopin’s Etudes or Debussy’s Preludes. The pianistic demands are similar in their level of difficulty, but there are distinct differences in approach to the instrument, particularly having to do with accents and rhythmic complexity, and the need for the two sides of the body and brain to be independent and coordinated. So the techniques I have internalized are quite specific to the styles of music I have pursued.
“It may well be that my choice of music to pursue helped me in the reinvention of my physical technique and approach to the instrument. The patterns I needed to learn were quite different, certainly no tonal scales and arpeggios, and to play that music requires more of a whole arm plus shoulder plus spine technique, as there is simply no other way to do it. In many ways it is easier to learn a new method than to rework old patterns and try to transform them.”
Perhaps Sturm’s student immersion in the great books has given his musical sensibility an intellectual bent. More likely, this is inherent in his personality. Whatever the case, it has led him to develop a holistic attitude to his art. “I have followed the philosophical principle that there must be a natural and relatively fluid way to bring to life what the composer has imagined, and it is up to me to discover it. I also assume that the composer has written with care, and that all the indications are to be taken seriously. Thus, every accent, phrasing mark, metronome indication, etc., should be, at the very least, attempted, and mastered if at all possible. And at the same time, the music must be brought to life, it must become as if it is a part of your soul, to be recreated on the spot as if for the first time. That is to say, I have to adapt my own inner workings to conform to what the composer has indicated. I choose to play only the music of composers with whom I am able to establish such a connection, in which the physical and emotional are fused into parts of one’s own personality.
“Through this approach, applied to a large body of work from the small number of composers I have chosen to concentrate on, I believe I have internalized their languages in a way that I would not otherwise have been able to. Had I come at their music, already in possession of a thoroughly polished technique based on, and designed to meet the needs of, the music of Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Ravel, etc., it is quite likely I would have found the notes easier to learn, but would have missed many of the details that really provide essential clues to the character of the music. There are often indications that are quite troublesome to follow literally, so we commonly ignore them, content with our ability to play all the notes in an impressive way. Or we impose our own aesthetic sense on the music, recreating it in our own image. That is a valid enough approach, but it is one I try to avoid as much as I can.”
Central to this attitude, in the particular case of Sturm, is the fact that he also makes a living as a master piano technician, a practical necessity, but as it turns out, a real boon to his artistry. “My secondary career as a piano technician, which, unfortunately, takes more of my time than I’d like due to my need to make a living, has been a good match for my pursuit of the pianist’s art. For one thing, it has exposed me to an enormous array of pianos of all sorts and conditions, and in particular it has allowed me access to many extraordinarily fine instruments. What is it that is different about these outstanding instruments? One of my major pursuits has been to try to answer that question, and, while there are many factors involved, perhaps the most important, from the point of view of the performing pianist, is the preparation it has been given, and the skill of the technician who has serviced it. As a side effect of my growing skill as a piano technician, I have had access to pianos that are very well prepared by myself, particularly compared to those I grew up practicing and performing on.”
I asked Sturm if his familiarity with the mechanics of the instrument makes it less of an adversary to him, and more of an extension of his body’s technique. “This is one of those factors that is very troublesome in the development of pianistic skill; the degree of skill that is achieved will be severely limited if the pianos being practiced on are not in good condition, and well regulated and voiced, which is unfortunately far from common. As I have had refined instruments to work on (as a pianist, having worked on them as a piano technician), I have developed far more of a touch-related technique. That is to say, it is based far more on the sense of touch, often accentuated by practicing or performing with eyes closed so as to focus more clearly on the interplay between touch and sound. From my knowledge of the mechanical innards of the instrument, I have a clear understanding of the components of the touch and response of an instrument, which possibly gives me an advantage in terms of knowing what a mechanism is capable of, and how to interact with it. But more important is the practical side of things.
“First, as I have had refined instruments to practice on (pianos I myself refined), I have been able to develop a much more reliable and fluid technique, for the simple reason that the piano is predictable. I have come to realize that much of the tension and anxiety of being a pianist is the inconsistency and unreliability of the instruments we practice and perform on. Security of technique comes from being able to trust that the complex patterns of movement we have choreographed in our body will produce predictable results at the instrument. If the instrument we practice on is unreliable, due to unevenness of regulation and voicing, for instance, we will be unable to refine our physical movements beyond certain limitations, and therefore be unable to achieve the subtleties that are essential to good interpretation. One result is that we will be forced to play louder, as that will give a greater degree of reliability on a borderline instrument. Another result is the removal of much of the range of color that potentially gives the piano its orchestral possibilities.
“While there are many highly skilled piano technicians in this country and around the world, there are also many who are very limited in their abilities. And some of the most accomplished technicians lack an overall understanding of all the refined details of concert preparation. The major manufacturers have devoted considerable expense and effort to provide training to piano technicians, but recent economic conditions have severely weakened them, to the extent that many of them have had to curtail these efforts. Similarly, budget cuts at performing venues and institutions of higher education have meant cuts to piano maintenance budgets. So while the major competitions, venues, and conservatories will generally have exceptionally well-prepared instruments, other places are pretty unpredictable. The Piano Technicians Guild is trying to fill the void in high level technical training to a certain extent, but time will tell how successful that will be.”
I asked Sturm if he thought that, given the value he has gained by his technical knowledge of the piano, if piano repair ought to be a part of a serious pianist’s training. “I believe every pianist would benefit from an introduction to the inner workings of the piano, tailored to their needs. It should explain not only the basic functioning, but also the steps of preparation needed to bring a piano to performance level, and how those steps affect the way the instrument feels and responds. Several of my piano technician colleagues at universities and conservatories offer courses or workshops where they expose pianists to these things, and they are typically popular and effective. I would favor requiring such a course for a piano degree. Every pianist needs to be capable of being in charge of the maintenance of an instrument, and needs to be capable of communicating with piano technicians. As a piano technician, I am often dismayed by how ignorant my customers are, even those who are accomplished professional teachers and performers. They have great difficulty in conveying their needs, and they often put up with instruments in what I consider to be atrocious condition, simply from not knowing any better.”
A central part of Sturm’s current repertoire, and the subject of his newest CD, is the piano music of contemporary Mexican composer Federico Ibarra. I asked him how he discovered this fascinating material. “I first encountered the music of Federico Ibarra at a concert in the mid 1980s. Mexican pianist Jorge Suarez presented an all Mexican program here in Albuquerque and included Ibarra’s Sonata No. 2, which had been dedicated to him. I was quite impressed at the time, and looked around to see if any of his music was available. It seemed not to be, and I assumed that perhaps he was unpublished. In the mid 90s, I thought I would like to explore music for piano by Mexican composers, and looked again for music by Ibarra. This time I found his Sonatas 1, 3, and 4 in the University of New Mexico library. I was particularly taken by Sonata No. 3, and set it among works I definitely intended to program in the future, though it had certain technical challenges that would need to be addressed before I could do it justice. I am thinking particularly of the third movement, the little chromatic triplets, alternating between hands; they need to murmur in the background throughout much of the piece. Not easy to do satisfactorily, and the movement is not effective if those figures are too loud or at all uneven.
“In 2004, when I decided to perform an all Mexican program and record that music as a CD,
Sonidos de Nueva España
, I chose Ibarra and Rodolfo Halffter as the central composers. I had obtained Ibarra’s Sonata No. 2 through interlibrary loan, and decided to include it along with Sonata No. 3. In the process of finding Sonata No. 2, I saw that no further solo piano works by him beyond Sonatas 1 to 4 appeared on WorldCat, which is pretty comprehensive in showing the contents of most libraries in the U.S. and several in other countries, so I assumed that was all he had published. Three years later, when I was writing the program notes, I did further searching for sources on the Internet, and discovered a reference to the U.S. premiere of Ibarra’s Sonata No. 5, by Mexican pianist Ana Cervantes, whom I happened to know. I inquired of her, and found that he had published not only that piece, but also Sonata No. 6 and a volume including Sonata No. 0 (a work preceding Sonata No. 1) and
“I should explain at this point that Ibarra is published primarily by Ediciones Mexicanas de Música, a firm founded by Carlos Chavez and managed for many years by Rodolfo Halffter. It had no international distribution (Peer Southern now handles their works, a recent development). It was pure serendipity that the UNM library had several of his works, apparently the result of a grant from Conaculta (the Mexican governmental arm concerned with the arts), which distributed scores from Ediciones to a few select libraries in the U.S. As I later discovered, following Halffter’s retirement the firm was kept alive by a couple of his former students, who would go into the office for a few hours most middays, and there was no additional infrastructure: no published catalogue, no international distribution, certainly no website. To obtain scores, one either went to the office when it was open and paid cash, or one faxed back and forth to determine the details of your order, and paid via bank transfer. No checks, no credit cards. I went through the faxing process to order all of Ibarra’s works for piano, only to discover that they did not know the correct international codes for a bank transfer.
“So I contacted Ana Cervantes again, and she graciously went to the office, purchased the scores, and sent them to me. I have to say that I have never been as excited by new music as I was when I read Ibarra’s Sonatas Nos. 5 and 6. I decided then and there that I needed to record his complete solo piano works, as they absolutely should be available to the international public, even if only on the very small scale I would be able to offer. And so I set about learning all that music, performing it two or three pieces at a time in several concerts over the next three years. I found the feedback from audiences was very favorable, reinforcing and confirming my own high opinion of Ibarra’s music. I should add that I was unaware of the fact that Cecilia Soria, a Mexican pianist living in Switzerland, had already recorded Sonatas 0 to 6 until my own project was well underway. I obtained a copy of her recording, and decided I had something quite different to convey, so I proceeded.
“I am happy to report that Ibarra’s reaction to my recording was very positive. He wrote me via e-mail, ‘I received your disc and I must say that I was very moved by the results. In your recording I find a complete understanding of the pieces with respect to form, and what a variety of colors you draw from the instrument! Your tone faithfully captures the thought, and I find your control of dynamics faithful to the score from the violent volcanic eruptions of some movements to the tasteful irony and elegance of Sonata 0. In sum, I thank you deeply for your interpretation of my music.’ [Original Spanish: Recibí su disco y lo que puedo decirle es que estoy emocionado con el resultado. En la grabación encuentro una comprensión total de las partituras en cuanto a la forma ¡y qué variedad de colores logra usted en el instrumento! Además la toma de sonido capta fielmente su pensamiento. Encuentro un manejo de las dinámicas tan fiel a la partitura que van desde las violentas erupciones volcánicas de algunas de las partituras hasta el buen gusto ironía y elegancia de la Sonata 0. En fin, le agradezco profundamente su interpretación a mi music.] He accompanied this e-mail with an attachment; his Sonata No. 7, not quite finished, dedicated to me, which was entirely unexpected. I felt honored beyond words.”
As listeners to Sturm’s new CD will discover, Ibarra’s music is not folkloric, and not, therefore, immediately recognizable in a nationalistic sense. Sturm elaborates, “Ibarra’s style is not Mexican in an ethnic sense, as he incorporates no folk elements of any kind. But in another way he is very much a part of the Mexican classical music tradition from the early 20th century to the present. That tradition has its roots in the monumental work of Carlos Chavez, who molded the music education system according to his own way of thinking. He believed that students of composition should not be immersed in European traditions, but should start afresh, as if nothing had come before them. So he had his students write melodies, and then counterpoints to those melodies, essentially in an intuitive manner. I believe that this bore fruit in the attitudes of contemporary Mexican composers, who rarely follow some school or other that happens to be dominant among certain circles elsewhere in the world, but instead rely on their own instincts to create a more individual musical voice, authentic for themselves.
“This is what I believe Ibarra has done. There is considerable craft behind his compositional technique, with careful choices of materials to be used, and much attention to form and to the integration of melodic and harmonic elements. So in that sense he is very much like the best composers of the Western classical tradition. Putting these elements together, he somehow makes his music sound very direct and quite accessible for the most part on first hearing, without, however, sounding like anyone else, without any sense of being derivative. A hallmark of his style is the creation of various figurations that decorate his music and give it an extraordinary range of color. Most important, though, is what I would call his inner emotional ear, which is able to imagine music that touches the soul in delicate and very moving ways, as well as evoking much stronger emotions in his towering climaxes. And I feel a very strong inner connection to his works, as if they were written specifically for me. I feel a similar deep connection to only a few other composers, notably Villa-Lobos and Mompou.”
Fred Sturm has forged a unique and remarkable career that continues to expand. It may have been different if he practiced more as a young boy, but he takes a broad, positive view of it all. “On the whole, I have to say that I have no regrets. I have developed very strong ideas about how to play the work of my chosen composers through the detailed approach I have taken, and that approach has served me well in getting to know the music of new composers, most recently Ibarra. His writing is filled with colorful effects that require the acquisition of specific pianistic techniques. If the details are glossed over, faked if you will, the magic is lost. And I am a pianist who seeks above all else to create magic. Perhaps sometimes I succeed.”
Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-6.
Piano Sonata No. 0
Fred Sturm (pn)
STURM UND DRANG 6. Available from fredsturm.net (70:32)
Federico Ibarra is a prolific Mexican composer, with a large body of symphonic, operatic, and chamber music to his credit. American pianist Fred Sturm has emerged as an ardent proponent of Ibarra’s still increasing collection of music for solo piano, including this recording of all seven of the extant piano sonatas. An eighth sonata (it will be called Sonata No. 7; Sonata No. 0 is a resurrected student work) has also been written, and is dedicated, with gratitude, to Sturm. Ibarra, who was born in 1946, is a thoroughly modern composer, forging a distinctive sound that follows no particular trend. His Mexican heritage is reflected in a kind of exciting visceral energy, without much discernable folkloric influence, in the manner of Carlos Chavez. There is certainly something of a cosmopolitan flavor to Ibarra’s writing as well. His sense of color and naturally flowing rhythm recalls the French impressionists; elsewhere he employs a kind of jazzy syncopation that conjures the inky world of film noir. Above all else, his music is overtly dramatic, with a strong narrative pulse present at all times. He conveys this sense with extreme dynamic contrasts, an expressive melodic component, and a masterful, if individualistic grasp of texture. One gets the sense that Ibarra completely exploits the technical capabilities of the instrument, with all 88 keys in use, and then some!
Fred Sturm, with his specialized interest in Latin piano music, and with his particular knowledge of piano mechanics, would seem to be the ideal interpreter of this work. Indeed, he plays the music of Ibarra as if he were writing it on the spot. It is rare to hear a musician so inhabited by the material. Sturm has played the piano his entire life, but did not have a typical conservatory training. Nevertheless, the technique he displays here can be astonishing, especially in his ability to draw out all of the inner voicings in the music, even as they are layered across a huge dynamic range (well captured by the recording). For the listener, this music can be challenging and even strange, but as an example of extraordinary artistry at the service of bold, iconoclastic music, this is a powerful release. I think that any adventuresome piano music lover would find this to be a uniquely compelling recording.