nerve

Orchestra, video, electronics [10′].

nerve deals with the phenomenon of stage fright. A projected text describes a first person account of stage fright from the point of view of a hypothetical pianist, who is about to go on stage to perform a piano concerto. The musical material of the work is loosely based on the opening eight bars of Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto. The piano is set up in front of the orchestra as if the audience were about to hear a piano concerto, and as if the soloist is about to walk onto the stage. The text projection opens with the lines: "I love to watch tennis because they make many mistakes, in my profession there is no room for error." The text is staggered word for word and synched to every chord or timbral change in the music, reinforced by the sampled piano. In this way the 'voice' of the narrator is established by the presence of the piano sound and at the same time underlined by the absence of the pianist. The narrative is very clearly in the first person and, similarly to that of the narrator in Mnemnonist S and The Arrest, takes us into the world of the narrator's inner thoughts, which in this case transpires to be those of a concert pianist suffering performance anxiety. The narrative itself is constructed out of texts gathered from interviews about musicians' experience of this sort of anxiety. They are woven together as a single narrative in disjointed manner, as thought processes tend to be in these circumstances. These thoughts are at times directed towards the inner self, and at other it aims to describe, justify and communicate the condition to a third person; and more relevantly, to the audience at the concert. What I tried to achieve in this work, which was somehow different to the treatment of the first person narrative voice in previous works, was to establish a direct link to a particular instrumental voice: in this case to the absent pianist reinforced by the sight of the piano, lid up waiting to be played, and the sampled piano chords heard in the electronics, which are synched to every word that appears on screen. This way of forcing a relation between the narrative 'voice' and the 'voice' in the fabric of the music, is not far removed from the narrative underlining many works in the concerto form. In Nerve the absence of the pianist is compensated for by the connection between the aural presence of the piano samples and the visual synchronisation of the text to these chords. The musical voicing of the text is manipulated by the harmonic intonation of the chord, the colouring, register and expressivity of the music over a given word. An example of this could be given in the part of the piece where we read: "Stage fright sends me into a state of spin". Every word before 'spin' is accompanied by a piano sound that has an increasing use of prepared or 'broken' sounds, as if the pristine sound of the instrumental voice is inexorably crumbling. This all builds up to the delayed final word of the sentence which instead of shoring up the metaphor of the damaged voice, switches to the metaphor of vertigo implied by the word 'spin', by leaving out the last piano chord and letting the suspended winds and lack of articulation imply the dizziness of a step into the void, of an ensuing black out. The reason why Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto serves here as a reference for Nerve, is that it was to be programmed as an overture to this piece in the premiere and the following tour of the orchestra. There is of course the coincidence that Rachmaninoff himself was a sufferer of both performance anxiety and writer's block: the concerto is in fact dedicated to the doctor that once helped him. This gave me the opportunity to make a direct link between the narrative voice of the imagined pianist to the actual pianist appearing in the concert hall, by having her walk slowly to the piano during the last minute of Nerve, sit down and start playing the Rachmaninoff immediately after the closing bars of my piece, as if it was her own inner voice that we had been hearing all along.

Commissioned by Jurjen Hempel and Jeugd Orkest Nederland for their summer tour 2012 with financial assistance from the Dutch Fonds Podium Kunst.

performance history

  • Premiere; Jeugd Orkest Nederland, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, 3 August 2012.
nerve