Why Page Turners Matter
Like elevators, page turners are only remarkable when things go awry. And go awry they do. Pianist Charles Owen recalled a 1998 recital in Scotland. The page turner, “a little old lady,” had forgotten her reading glasses. She exhorted Owen to “do a very big nod” to signal the turn backwards for the repeat of the exposition. When the time came, Owen nodded vigorously and, seemingly involuntarily, she shouted “BACK!” The second time around, on reaching the beginning of the development section, she cried “ON!” with undimmed vehemence. At another concert Owen’s page turner kept leaning on the piano’s fallboard—the lid that goes over the keys—so emphatically that it ran the risk of crushing his fingers. Owen had to hold it up with one hand and play with the other. “You know,” he said during the intermission, “I’m really in the mood to turn my own pages for the rest of the night.”
A memorable page turner is rarely a good thing. “I never wanted to do it,” said a musician friend of mine. As an usher at London’s Wigmore Hall he saw his colleague, a fellow music student at the time, “berated onstage” by a very famous accompanist after messing up the first page turn. The pianist started the work again from the top. “If it was me,” he added, “I would’ve walked off and told him to go fuck himself, and taken the sacking that would’ve followed.”
Page turning calamities can be funny. There are YouTube compilations dedicated to these moments of slapstick, cringe-making comedy. But incidents can also reflect the more vicious, darker dynamics of the classical music business: the nonchalance with which artists will humiliate their less-experienced peers. If the way diners behave with waiting staff reveals much, so too might cherished performers’ treatment of page turners. Early on in David Leavitt’s musical Bildungsroman The Page Turner, the ambitious protagonist is warned, minutes before making his debut with a famous soloist, “not to turn two pages at once…Richard slapped a page turner for that.”
For Charles Owen, the most capable page turners are “like a butler or a valet in ‘Downton Abbey.’” They are part of the semi-invisible superstructure of the performance business, along with the répétiteur in the opera house, prompter in the box under the stage, or piano tuner working their magic in an empty auditorium.
Lately I’ve started to notice page turners. A few months ago I saw Pierre-Laurent Aimard perform the first 11 of Stockhausen’s fearsome “Klavierstücke” at London’s Southbank Centre. Lasting 90 minutes, these works are pinnacles of the 20th-century piano repertoire, dizzying in their virtuosity and cosmic in their inventiveness. My eye was caught not just by Aimard, in fingerless gloves protecting his hands in the work’s more violent moments, but by the person next to him. The Stockhausen pieces demanded enormous concentration from the audience, and the remarkable stillness and absorption of Aimard’s page turner refocused my own fluctuating attention. The page turner that night, Mike Oldham, was a crucial part of the piece’s impact. Oldham is something of a legend in piano circles, having turned pages alongside his day job since the 1970s. Oldham turned pages first for Alfred Brendel, whom he met in London decades ago. In 1972, after the page turner for a recording session couldn’t return after lunch, Oldham stepped in. He studied piano, though is keen to stress that he is “not a pianist.” I asked if he knew others who have turned pages so extensively and at such a high level for so long. “I am very strange,” he answered wryly.
Oldham told me that there is much more to any of this than merely flipping from one sheet to another. The long list of renowned pianists he has worked with—every major player of the last few decades—attests to this very particular set of skills. He talked about his technique with the same precision you hear from any top-tier musician. He marshaled a dizzying musical knowledge which belied his unassuming, easygoing manner. Preparation, he told me, is key: knowing the score, remembering which repeats will be observed, understanding the structure of the work. He and Aimard had only 15 minutes of rehearsal on the “Klavierstücke”: their coordination in light of this was remarkable. Adaptability is also vital. Oldham recounted working with a pianist on Debussy’s “Études,” where the pianist clearly missed two bars. The page turner’s job then was to keep the show on the road by means of a cat-like alertness. Contemporary works present special challenges, even if the notation is conventional. The “Klavierstücke” required “double the concentration,” Oldham said.
Potential traps begin with positioning. “The problem most page turners have is that they sit too far away from the pianist,” Oldham said. “This means that when they get up to turn they have to take two or three steps—it is very distracting for the audience.” When preparing the “Klavierstücke,” Oldham had to be intensely aware of Aimard’s wild physical movements up and down the keyboard; in the tenth, the pianist lurched across the piano, bringing down crashing cluster-chords and explosive glissandos that were thrilling for the audience, but demanded extreme discipline from Oldham. It helped, he told me, “that Aimard didn’t play a single wrong note.”
What are the tricks of the trade? “I’m not sure I should tell you,” Oldham said. “Dry hands are a particular problem. But you don’t want to see someone licking their fingers onstage. I ball my left-hand into a fist and cover it with my right while I’m waiting.” Inanimate scores can present unforeseen problems. New ones have unbroken spines so the pages won’t always stay put when turned; before a concert Oldham will crinkle the corners of pages and rough up the score a little to make sure it cooperates when the moment comes.
There are breakout moments in musical history where turners become visible and audible through neither accident nor error. In Ravel’s two-piano version of his Introduction and Allegro, he calls for a mysterious “third hand ad lib.” to perform an impossible trill—a part that could only be executed by an especially daring page turner, reaching across the keyboard and right into the middle of the action. In the middle movement of Charles Ives’s Violin Sonata No.2, a raucous hoe-down, the composer’s manuscript features an additional stave with a drum-like rhythm instructing the page turner to smash out noisy cluster chords at the bottom end of the keyboard. It’s a strong reaction to anonymity.
Pauline Oliveros gives the page turner a more formalized role in her music. In the “Trio for Flute, Piano and Page Turner,” the latter assists in preparing the piano, holding keys to summon harmonic overtones; its title gives some formal recognition to an often forgotten role. Her 1970 chamber work “Aeolian Partitions” includes the page turner in the piece’s experimental, aleatoric choreography:
Re-enter with Page Turner and score…Play lowest A sfz with pedal. Freeze, looking attentively at the note just struck until delay is complete, continuing to hold pedal for Page Turner. He turns page in middle of decay.
“Romancendres” for prepared piano and cello by Heinz Holliger saw Mike Oldham reaching over the music desk to manipulate the strings under the lid; he even had to take the score and rustle it over the piano’s strings.
Some months ago I watched an elaborate page turning performance of this type in concert by audacious harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani at London’s Barbican. Esfahani performed Miroslav Srnka’s “Triggering,” and his page turner, James Hardie, took on a progressively bigger role. Esfahani and Hardie moved to a second harpsichord in the final movement, “Does God Shoot his own Particles?,” in which Srnka examines the harpsichord’s mechanism and more unusual resonances. Hardie and Esfahani used E-bows, a kind of guitar pickup, to draw out strange timbres from its strings, making a harpsichord sound like a clarinet, or the rim of a wine glass.
“It is a piece that would be impossible without a page turner,” Hardie told me. Turning for contemporary music is always difficult—Hardie needed a stopwatch for sections of this unconventionally-notated piece—but this work also called for special sensitivity in balancing the delicate pickups on the strings, with Hardie reaching across at one point to help Esfahani keep it in place. All of this was achieved, I learned, on a scant half-hour of rehearsal. It’s a heightened example of the discipline inherent in the page turner’s job: poise, discretion, and acutely responsive to the happenstance of performance.
Hardie and Esfahani’s collaboration came from something deeper, as Esfahani taught Hardie harpsichord at Oxford. Hardie himself had turned pages when training as an organist, which is a crucial part of their musical induction. Before young organists even lay a finger on the keys, Hardie told me, they will sit in the loft by a more experienced player, preparing the different stops and registrations, organizing the music for the service, and learning by seeing rather than just doing.
Hardie worked with Esfahani on his latest release, a disc of Bach Toccatas, recorded over several days in a north London church. In a recording session like that the demands placed on the page turner are intensified considerably. In addition to following Esfahani’s flexible, exploratory readings of this music on the page, Hardie occasionally changed the stops and registration on the harpsichordist’s custom-made instrument, helping to manifest the dazzling sound world of these recordings. Hardie described an intense physical alertness, aware that the creak of his chair or the groan of a floorboard could ruin a whole take.
We all know that recordings are a team effort, drawing on the expertise of producers and sound engineers, but rarely does the page turner crop up when we imagine the studio. Despite the apparently casual arrangements made for page turners, it “really can’t be done by just anyone,” Hardie pointed out. And page turners get a lot out of turning pages. Seeing Esfahani at close range, with the intense focus of the page turner, taught Hardie much about real musical spontaneity. It was instructive for Charles Owen too. When page turning for a colleague who was accompanying cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Owen learned that she used much more bass when working with Ma (conventional wisdom dictates that too much of that register would drown out the cello). But instead it enriched and reinforced Ma’s sound; Owen has adopted this practice himself with cellists.
Hardie didn’t receive a credit in the program for the concert at the Barbican, though he was named in the liner notes for Esfahani’s latest CD. Still, page turners are largely anonymous. Oldham, Owen, and Hardie believe that they are doing their job best when invisible. Each frowns upon the idea that page turners should visibly emote or applaud on the concert platform, despite being inches away from extraordinary, moving musicianship.
Audiences enjoy seeing musicians interact on the platform: their knowing glances and playful looks are part of what make live performance so thrilling. So why is the page turner taboo? Hardie told me, “I think it’s because we don’t like the idea that musicians can’t do everything themselves…they are supposed to be all-powerful.” The page turner disturbs our illusion of musical command, threatening to shatter the audience’s suspension of artistic disbelief, where we disaggregate the magic of the sounds we experience from their more mundane physical and material realities: works that exist in published scores with broken spines and tweaked pages. ¶