Rhinegold Photo credit: © Kirsten McTernan
Julia Plaut conducts the world premiere of 24 Pianos in Cardiff

Owen Mortimer

Composer Julia Plaut introduces her new score for 24 Steinway pianos

1:24, 13th November 2020

Julia Plaut’s 24 Pianos was commissioned to celebrate the arrival of a new fleet of Steinway instruments at Cardiff’s Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, where she conducted the score’s world premiere with an ensemble drawn from across the conservatoire

There aren’t many examples of pieces written for multiple pianos. Where did you look for inspiration?

As soon as I was offered the commission, my imagination began to teem with ideas for sounds and textures that I thought I could create with an orchestra of pianos. I had attended an excellent workshop with Piano Circus a couple of years back and had made plenty of notes on what, in their experience, makes for an effective work for multiple pianos. Of course, this all needed to be framed within the logistical constraints of the rehearsal and performance. So, I ventured onto YouTube to see how other artists and composers managed the logistics and sound world. Piano Circus were a big inspiration and they are in fact going to workshop a version of 24 Pianos which I’m creating for them.

How would you describe your piece in terms of genre, form and style?

I wanted to create a celebratory piece to mark the arrival of 24 new Steinways in the Welsh capital, Cardiff. The music grew from fragments that I selected from the joyous Welsh folk song The Bells of Aberdovey. The listener will probably the hear influence of Steve Reich and Shostakovich in the music.

24 Pianos is in the form of a grand arc beginning with a single child playing. Gradually all 24 instruments join in, creating a hypnotic soundscape. A chorale section reminiscent of a Welsh male voice choir precedes a tremulous cloudy section. Finally, the clouds disperse to reveal a triumphant and monumental finale – like arriving at the top of a glorious Welsh mountain.

I wanted to showcase all the qualities I love about the piano while allowing each pianist to experience the joy of being part of a huge, homogenous sound. I have made use of spacialisation, with motifs bouncing from left to right and arpeggiation running the full range of the keyboards panning across the room. There is plenty of percussive music in the high register and a section exploring the sonorous middle register. What a gift to have seven Steinway grands in the ensemble, with such a glorious bass sound to utilise! The final sound left ringing in the ear is all 24 pianists playing the lowest A fortissimo.

Do you make use of any extended techniques and sounds?

No-one was going to thank me for preparing brand new Steinways, so paper clips and in-the-case techniques were off the menu for this project! The one extended technique I’ve used is at the very opening, where all players silently depress the keys of a harmonic series on A and hold it with the pedal. The tam-tam strike initiates the resonance of the piano strings creating a subtle shimmering, as if the instruments are waking up in their new home.

What are the biggest challenges this project presented?

One of the biggest challenges is asking 24 piano players to play together! I jest, but as we wanted to include a range of players from children to professionals, I had no idea how many of the pianists would have experience playing in an ensemble or following a conductor. As it turned out, with COVID conditions, we had a wonderful line-up of experienced players all delighted to be performing.

The logistics around moving the instruments meant we had just one hour of rehearsal in total, directly before the performance. The piece had to be crafted to ensure it would come together very quickly. I dealt with these constraints by scoring the music on one stave for each part and using minimalist techniques to ensure players were not bogged down with pages of note reading, but could get their heads out of the score and enjoy the whole extraordinary experience.

Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama
Steinway & Sons

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