Consider This: Bringing music made for one to an audience of hundreds

It took a decade for Roger Admiral to commission music he recently performed in Germany and at Augustana.

Roger Admiral playing piano

What does it take to transform music originally designed to be listened to over headphones, to a performance for a live audience of hundreds? This was the challenge Roger Admiral, accomplished pianist and music lecturer at Augustana, undertook when he first heard Steven Takagusi’s music at a music symposium.

 “The kaleidoscopic ecstasy of sounds in his music blew my mind when I first heard it. I heard him speak about his music, and I briefly introduced myself afterwards,” said Admiral.

Takagusi’s music inspired Admiral to ask if the composer would write a new solo piano piece for him. A mutual acquaintance vouched for Admiral and Takagusi agreed to the idea.

The journey of bringing Klavierkonzert, a newly commissioned piece of music, involved a lot of patience but resulted in a mesmerizing 50-minute-long masterpiece that premiered at the Donaueschinger Musiktage in Germany this past October 2023. Admiral first met electroacoustic composer Steven Takagusi at a music symposium in Victoria in 2013.

Admiral secured funding for Takagusi to compose the new piece using the President’s Grant for the Creative and Performing Arts through U of A’s Killam Research Fund. Around this time, Takagusi had a larger theatrical piece performed in Stuttgart, Germany where industry people were invited to attend. The Donaueschinger Musiktage festival director was impressed with Takagusi’s music and approached him to compose a full orchestral piece with a piano concerto for the festival.

Takagusi was originally going to write Admiral’s piece as a 15-minute piano concerto accompanied by brief recorded samples from stereo speakers. He adjusted his plans so the piece could be performed at the festival. The new composition would exist in two versions: solo piano and electronic sounds and solo panel electronic sounds at full orchestra. The festival in Germany matched U of A’s funding to extend the piece to 50 minutes with orchestra.

For over 20 years, Takagusi wrote music to be listened to only on headphones. Now, Takagusi had to adjust to writing music for live performances. He refers to this as “when people return…”, and there was a new dynamic between what is fixed and what is happening in the moment.

“His acousmatic music can be labeled interior because it focuses on the aural activity and how it affects your imagination, even though it's very active and dramatic,” said Admiral, adding, “This goes back to the philosopher Pythagoras. When he was teaching he would often teach behind a curtain so that the students would focus on his speech and what he was saying with no visual stimulus.”

Takagusi wrote the piece with the timeline of being performed at the 2020 festival. The pandemic gave Admiral plenty of time to practice for the piece’s debut.

“I play a lot of contemporary music, also known as new or avante-garde music, so I’m used to playing this style. Steve’s piece can be traced back to revolutionary rethinking in the 1930s but especially after the Second World War,” said Admiral.

Performing as a solo pianist for 50 minutes is physically demanding, requiring Admiral to do a lot of choreography and practice for the quick motions of a piece without repetitive patterns.

“As a soloist, you play to the point of exhaustion,” says Admiral adding, “It involves some level of athleticism. You’re preparing the small muscles of your fingers and your hands. It’s a lot of deciding which finger and hand does what, when, and how can I do this for maximum volume or intensity, but also at the necessary speed that is required.”

Admiral performed the new piece as a pianist accompanied by a full orchestra at the Donaschinger Musiktage festival in October, then in November he performed it again at the Jeanne & Peter Lougheed Performing Arts Centre at the Augustana Campus where Admiral played without an orchestra.

Admiral enjoyed the experience of performing for both the German and Camrose audiences. In Germany, he was intrigued by the reaction of an audience accustomed to contemporary music. 

“The reaction was enthusiastic at the end, with some people standing, but as how also happens with contemporary music events, especially in Europe, there was some brief booing,” said Admiral adding, “It is the thing that happens there. It’s a way of saying ‘let’s have a discussion about this rather than a blanket acceptance.’” 

Takagusi attended the Augustana performance and participated in a lively question-and-answer session afterwards. 

“It was excellent. A presentation of research to the community with Steve introducing the music and giving insight to what he was thinking when writing the piece and what his inspirations were,” said Admiral. “The question and answer period was a rich interaction between audience, composer and performers with questions ranging from aesthetics to philosophical background and it was nice to play for the Augustana campus who were partially responsible for commissioning this piece.”

Interest in the piece continues to build. In August, Admiral will travel to New York City to perform the piece at the TIME:SPANS festival with Talea Ensemble, a chamber group.

Admiral sees creating new music like Takagusi’s piece as a way to express the mystery of the human interior - this, he says, has always been the goal of composers.

“We’re researching new ways that we can tell a story or reveal the emotions of something as complicated as the human mind, or the human heart,” said Admiral.

Astrid Blodgett, short story writer

About Roger

Pianist Roger Admiral has been active for decades as a soloist and in a variety of contemporary chamber groups and conducted ensembles across Canada, performing new works by local and international composers. His performances include György Ligeti's Piano Concerto with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra, the complete piano works of Iannis Xenakis for Vancouver New Music, and recitals for Curto-Circuito de Música Contemporânea Brazil, and the Festival of Contemporary Polish Music in Wrocław. For 20 years he coached students in the contempo contemporary chamber music program at the University of Alberta, and currently teaches piano as a full lecturer in the Department of Fine Arts and Humanities at the Augustana Campus.