Classical Piano
Letting Go

The American pianist Carol Lian started improvising by accident. Now, however, improvisation and contemporary music form an essential part of her concert life. She talks to Peter Coughlin.

“The piano was in my grandmother’s living room which we, as children, were not allowed into very often. But when I first touched the piano, when I felt the keys, I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life.” Carol Lian’s staunch determination to pursue the piano has proved to be much more than childish precocity, although it may have seemed so at the time.

“I wanted to go to the School of Performing Arts and when I told my teacher she was shocked. “Oh, but you’ll never get in,” she said, because I had only been playing for about a year. I did get in - but on my ear, not on my playing. They told me, as a freshman, that I should give up the piano and become a cellist! What audacity to think that I should give up the piano!” exclaims Lian, laughing through what has become mock indignation. “It was unthinkable.”

Lian steadfastly pursued her beloved piano despite all attempts at dissuasion. She studied with various teachers in the Leschetitzky tradition and soon excelled at the instrument. “I worked like a dog, and by the end of the year I wasn’t too bad, so they asked me if I wanted to play on the radio. I played two Bach Inventions, “ which, like everything else, she had to play from memory. “The first went pretty well, but in the second I had a memory slip. In a split second I thought, “There are thousands of people listening to you, you can’t let them down, make something up,” just like that. And I did, I made something up and went back to the beginning of the piece When I came to the same spot the same thing happened, so I made something up again and ended the piece. I, at 13, thought no-one would notice!” This unintended improvisation would not slip by all listeners, however. “When I got home I got a call from a girlfriend of mine from school, and I’ll never forget what she said: “Carol, what edition of the Bach do you have? I was following the music and it was different!” So I just said that yes, my edition must be different.”

A true performer, Lian still feels that same sense of obligation to her audiences today, even inanimate ones such as the tape-recorder, which she glances at from time to time as if addressing it personally. Her concern for listeners is also clear from the care she takes in assembling her programmes.

“I try to be very sensitive about how the pieces will go together, will sound together” Her approach is not entirely intellectual, however. How did she choose the programme she will be performing at St. John’s Smith Square on 11 November and at other venues around the UK? “It chose me,” she replies. Not that Lian cannot elaborate on that.

“The last two years have not been so good for me personally. My father passed away and in that frame of mind I couldn’t even think of playing - but then Mozart came in with that wonderful essence his music possesses. It’s so pure and uplifting, which is just what I needed. Going from Mozart [Sonata in B flat, K281] to Chopin [Ballade no 3 in A flat], the sounds are totally different. Physically, you feel the difference , with the warmth and richness of Chopin contrasting the clarity of Mozart. Yet Chopin loved Mozart so much, and I love them both, so the progression seemed natural.

The second half of her programme contains two London premieres. “The Jack Reilly piece [La-No-Tib-Suite] is very rich in harmony and bitonality -  most of the voicings are close together and move as such - which in the Tui St George Tucker piece [Tantum Ergo] the texture is totally different. I’m really looking forward to playing the St George Tucker piece in a church because of its religious references, especially since I was a church organist for many years. It’s influenced by Bach and is very meditative despite being very challenging to play.” Her programme ends with The Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody no 11.

The pianist’s connection to the Jack Reilly contribution is quite strong for many reasons, not insignificantly including the fact that the performer and the composer also happen to be wife and husband. Perhaps more pertinent for Lian, however, is the fact that La-No-Tib requires the performer to improvise in two sections.

“I actually started improvising intentionally for the first time when I was working with the Reilly piece. In the music there are spaces where the instructions are something like  “improvise at length on a motif, or in such-and-such a way or freely, whichever you want to do,” and I had no idea how to approach this at all.” Nothing in her formal training had prepared her for this challenge.

“As a matter of fact, I had to memorize everything, which is very limiting. As I was learning the piece, I just started to do things - they just came. You have to let go totally, you have to allow the music to come directly through - which I enjoyed because it was different from the ways I had approached music all my life.”

The piece opened a new mode of expression for Lian during the recording sessions for her debut album in 1980. “I decided to include the piece on my first album. Jack was there and he suggested that I improvise a piece freely. So I did, and I remember thinking it was terrible, so I stopped. But Jack and the others really wanted me to do more. That’s the story of my first free improvisation.”

From that point on, Lian began to include improvisations in her public performances and audiences responded favourably. She has even released two albums of collaborative improvisations, Neptune and Moments, with the noted percussionist Ronnie Bedford. Though she does not improvise in all her programmes, Lian feels that it is essential to her artistic expression.

“As I listen to my improvisations over the years, I have found that I am more able to trust my musical mind, that having spent all these years with the music of the great masters has changed me. This trust is important because when you improvise you cannot edit as a composer would. It happens this way: you go to the piano and you wait...and it unfolds. There is no anticipation. I do not practise it, I rely on my life for how it will come out. This balances the other part of my musical life where everything is so structured. Improvisation has helped me get deeper into music of Mozart or Chopin or Liszt because I feel so much closer to the spirit of the music, to the spontaneous thought when the music first comes to the composer. I feel so much of an obligation to get the music right, to make it sound alive - and to be able to do that at the moment when the audience is there and not the day after, or the day before, or the month before.”

Carol Lian performs at St John’s Smith Square, London, on 11 November

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