Erwin Schulhoff: In Futurum

"One morning [in 2004], the French pianist Philippe Bianconi sat at a scruffy old Steinway in a practice room tucked away in the 92nd Street Y looking at the score in front of him with some perplexity. A slight man, with glasses and a wily, professorial smile, he said, 'There is nothing to practice, nothing to play.' The piece in question was the Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff's 'Five Picturesques,' which Bianconi was to perform two days later in a weekend of Schulhoff's music. Four of the five numbers he had down, but the central movement, hauntingly titled 'In Futurum,' presents an unusual problem: it is totally silent.

"Although John Cage's 4'33" (the 1952 piece in which a performer armed with a stopwatch maintains silence for the eponymous duration) is easily the world's most famous silent piece of music, Schulhoff's piece came first, in 1919. (In fact, even earlier, in 1897, a French humorist named Alphonse Allais composed nine blank measures under the title 'Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man.') Schulhoff's silence, furthermore, is very different from Cage's. 4'33," originally written with entirely blank measures, is a model of Zen calm, whereas Schulhoff's page is about as busy and frenetic as silence can be. There are long rests and short rests, triplet and quintuplet rests, and fast runs of thirty-second-note rests. There are fermatas, exclamation points, question marks, and, in the middle and at the end, enigmatic signs that look like a hybrid of a half note and a smiley face [one of which, in the middle, is frowning]. Most challenging of all is the opening direction to play 'tutto il canzone con espressione e sentimento ad libitum, sempre, sin al fine!' ('the entire song with as much expression and feeling as you like, always, right to the end!'). Bianconi wondered what to do. 'Should I just sit there?' he asked."

[Erwin's Schulhoff Sonata Erotica calls for the orgasmic moans of a female singer.]

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