As soon as Michael Abramovich appeared on stage in Scripps College’s Balch Hall on Oct. 16, it became apparent that he would not deliver a typical, formal recital.
“Balch Hall resembles a church, which is a sanctuary where a ritual takes place,” Abramovich said to the audience. “A concert is itself a kind of religious ritual because when a human being makes sound, it transcends the earth and becomes divine.”
The Eastern European concert pianist performed as part of the Humanities Institute, a program co-sponsored by the Scripps Music Department. The Humanities Institute presents a thematic program each semester pursuing a topic related to the humanities, hosting a number of interdisciplinary events ranging from conferences to film series, with a focus on silence this fall.
Born in Romania and based in Berlin, Abramovich frequently performs as both a pianist and conductor around the world. Humanities Institute Director Juliet Koss was responsible for bringing Abramovich to Scripps.
“I’ve heard him play about a dozen concerts in Berlin over the course of the last five years, and every concert is somehow the best concert I’ve ever heard,” Koss said.
Although the concert’s theme was silence, Abramovich opened with a friendly dialogue with the audience. He maintained the light tone throughout the evening, engaging in a running commentary between each piece.
The program featured an assortment of styles and time periods. Abramovich started with a selection of short story pieces by the French Baroque composer François Couperin, a member of the court of King Louis XIV. Lyrical and highly stylized, the music was originally written for the harpsichord, an instrument incapable of producing dynamics.
Abramovich next played “Regard du Silence” by the 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen. A devoted ornithologist, Messiaen attempted to transcribe his favorite birdsongs into the written music. The piece’s unconventional melody provided striking musical contrast with the tonal style of the first song. Abramovich followed the Messiaen with Spanish composer Federico Mompou’s “Música Callada,” or “Music of Silence.”
“It is music that doesn’t say anything, music that is very lonely in its silence,” Abramovich said. “It is almost childlike, which may have to do with the solitude of children.”
While the preceding songs fit into the theme of silence in some way, it was perhaps most starkly represented by John Cage’s composition 4’33”. Commonly referred to as Cage’s “silent” piece, 4’33” comprises three movements in which performers are instructed to produce no intentional noises for four minutes and 33 seconds. When the concert was still in its earliest stages of inception, this was the only required piece.
“There’s so much to say about this piece, I won’t say anything about it,” Abramovich said. “We will experience it together.”
Without the notes of the piano to dominate Balch, the whispers and rustlings of the audience were amplified. Such a lack of purposeful sound forced listeners to rethink their notions of both music and silence.
“Listening to the Cage started out uncomfortable, but by the end it was easier to listen to,” Emily Wilke SC ’17 said.
Without any semblance of an introduction or distinction, Classical composer Joseph Haydn’s “Sonata in D Major, Hob. XVI” immediately followed the Cage. Abramovich then ended the night with Franz Liszt’s transcription of the lover’s duet from Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, which centers on death and the impending silence that it carries.
Although the Cage was required, Abramovich was given free reign over the rest of the program. On paper, the rationale behind his choices may not, at first, be obvious to the audience. The Couperin, after all, does not have any obvious connection to the idea of silence. When asked about his additional choices for the concert, Abramovich revealed that he aimed to evoke the theme through more than simply song choice.
“I thought that not only the silence of the music was appropriate, but also the reaction of the audience,” he said. “I hate applause.”
Indeed, Abramovich more than once leapt up immediately after concluding a piece. Proclaiming a fresh bit of commentary or making a broad declaration, the pianist left no space for the audience to clap.
Even after the program was made public, Abramovich added pieces and changed their order in the program. The Couperin, for example, was not featured on the concert’s printed flyer.
“Sometimes you have a good idea, and it’s all right, but you can always have better ideas,” he said.
Abramovich’s verbal commentary was rich with information about the pieces and their respective composers, helping the audience understand the pieces in the context of the program’s theme of silence. This dedication and thoughtful presentation proved rewarding for the concertgoers.
“The whole concert was of a piece, and he sequenced the pieces in the best possible order to be accessed,” Claremont resident Suzanne Snijder said.
Despite Abramovich’s attempts to suppress applause, the audience expressed its admiration by awarding the performer three curtain calls. Silence? Not so much.
“It’s really phenomenal to enjoy not just the talent of the performer, but also the atmosphere that’s produced by the whole program,” Koss said.