For Hilary Demske, music seems to exist outside of time. She can’t remember not knowing how to play the piano. “I started when I was three, and as far as my memory goes back, the piano has been related to how I express emotion. It’s always been linked.”
The Utah Valley University piano professor first got the attention of Reichel Recommends’ editor Ed Reichel with her recording of Henry Martin’s selected piano works. In 2010 Reichel wrote, “The music Hilary Demske has chosen for her CD is demanding. It takes a pianist of rare technical finesse and musicality to make it work, and Demske…is just such a performer.”
Most recently, I attended the recital of her new composition, an hour-long reworking of Schubert’s Die Winterreise. I was likewise impressed at her exquisite technical prowess, the wild imagination in the composition, and the signature lyricism in the execution.
I discovered that there is a process to her melodic interpretations. “On the piano,” said Demske, “I try to imitate a singer all the time. Every time I try to shape a line, I think, ‘How would the singer do it? That’s a wide interval leap, so it’s going to be hard to get to the top, and then I’ll taper at the end.’”
Seeing that she takes a vocalist’s approach to interpretation, I perceived what I thought would be a frustration for her. Unlike the voice or wind or string instruments, the piano essentially loses control over the note once the string is struck. Or so I thought. She explained, “That’s a challenge, but actually that’s what I love about it. There’s an endless variety of sound that you can get on the piano. There’s the preparatory motion, the playing of the note, and the release of the note. By altering any of those things, you can really change the sound a lot. I find that the piano has the widest palette of colors of any instrument.”
Demske’s Winterreise was a celebration of that breadth she has found in the piano. I asked her what her first experience was with Schubert’s original piece, but like so many things in her musical memory, the song cycle seemed to have always been with her. “I was thinking about this the other day,” she said. “When is it that I became obsessed with this piece? It just seems like I’ve always loved it. I can’t remember.
“When I was a student in Germany,” she said, “I didn’t learn German before I got there, so I had to learn it very quickly. I chose Schubert’s songs and memorized the poems. But I didn’t do it with Die Winterreise. I did it with Die schöne Müllerin, another song cycle. But I knew Die Winterreise before that. I don’t remember the first time I heard it.”
What Demske does remember, however, is starting work on her own reimagining of Schubert’s masterpiece. It’s been a process that’s lasted about four years. “When I learn a piece,” she said, “it becomes part of me. I know it inside and out – I feel like I breathe it. And I wanted to feel that way with Winterreise. I’ve never performed it by accompanying someone else (singing the tenor role). I didn’t want to. I wanted to experience all of it myself. I didn’t want to share it with anyone; I wanted to play all of the melodies, and the only way I could do that was to combine the parts.”
Demske’s Winterreise employs a variety of extended techniques and is unapologetically modern. I’ve been thinking about the public’s general distaste for new classical music, and her piece set those mental gears in motion again. Audiences often complain that new music is too noisy or dissonant. Critics of atonality, extended techniques and the varied new methods of composition often invoke “The Emperor’s Clothes” as a silver bullet attack against any contemporary classical music they find slightly challenging.
For a while, I’ve been trying to reconcile this animosity towards classical music with the public’s general acceptance of popular music that is equally noisy and bizarre. Just think of the ending of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” and its descent into incoherent cacophony.
I asked Demske for her thoughts on this paradox.
“I think it’s a matter of exposure,” she said. “There are certainly contemporary pieces that don’t appeal to everyone, and that’s okay. It’s important not to give up on a piece, however, just because you may not understand it immediately.”
“But I think that’s the difference between classical music and pop music,” she continued. “With pop music, they’re three minute pieces, and you want to love it the first time. But with classical music, you may love a Chopin sonata initially, but the 20th, millionth time you play it, you love it more. And I know that to be true as a pianist. I start learning a piece, and a year later, I’ve been practicing that piece six hours a day, and I love it even more. That’s why it will last 400 years.”
That’s a sobering time frame. In four centuries, will our far-flung inheritors be singing about Schubert’s linden tree or The Beatles’ “elementary penguins singing Hare Krishna?” I like them both, but I suspect the Schuberts of the world, past and present, will prevail.
In the final minutes of our discussion, I asked Demske if she was planning on performing her Winterreise again soon. “I don’t have any local recitals planned. I’m going to Europe and then China for two months in the spring. I have another concert tour that I’m doing, and I’m playing standard repertoire for it. So I’m having to shift gears suddenly. I don’t want to say that Die Winterreise is a hobby, but I fit it in between doing standard things. I’m planning on recording it in the fall or late summer, though.”
That’s certainly something to look forward to.