Jennifer Gersten is a freelance writer and musician.
Probing the Page Turner’s Plight in the Digital Age
Sunday, February 26, 2017 - 09:44 AM
In performance, the page turner is the pianist's shadow. As the pianist strides onstage, the page turner, cloaked in muted hues, trails behind. She is not to bow, but rather to sit immediately on the spare chair beside the piano bench and hunch. She is to be small and silent. Her movements she must circumscribe to a covert swoop above the pianist’s left hand so that, upon the pianist's nod, she can seize the played page by the topmost corner and pull it to safety. (To seize elsewhere all but ensures the page turner’s elbow making rapid communion with the player’s nose.) At the performance's close, she is the first to retreat. The applause is not hers.
She is also rarely missed. Many a show has gone on without a page turner, in which case the ambitious pianist does the work herself, her reckless right hand leaping across the chasm from keys to page and back. In this piece by composer and conductor Victoria Bond, the page turner — who finally usurps the performance — gives pianists ample reason to carry on alone:
Entropy once more envelops the page turner in this routine by Victor Borge, a 20th-century Danish-American pianist, comedian and conductor sometimes called “The Great Dane” (he was the inspiration for contemporary clowns Igudesman and Joo). Here he explores the possibilities of a page turner gone awry:
Yet the page turner's presence is more often a boon than cause for concern. Here, she averts disaster during a Brahms sonata performed by the violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianist Lars Vogt:
In George Crumb's Makrokosmos IV, the page turner actually has a part. Beginning in the section “Cosmic Canons," the page turner, dormant before now, is asked to strike the piano’s lower strings with a ruler. (Much more is in motion in Makrokosmos, its helical score in particular.) Watch a performance here (the page turner makes her entrance after about 20 minutes):
This next example, a sonata, features a page turner who is as much performer as pianist’s attaché:
The page turner’s quiet labors are at the fore of a 2006 French thriller, Page Turner, the poster for which is a not unheard of if unsubtle depiction of the pianist-page turner relationship. Page Turner is also the name of a three-episode Korean drama, also about the travails of competitive pianists. Watch the trailer for each here and here.
Yet, in exchange for their services, page turners may soon find themselves endangered. Tablets, now a commonplace tool for musicians, store all one’s music, and, perhaps most conveniently, pair with pedals that effectively allow musicians to turn pages with their own feet. Sadly, this may provoke a scarcity of page turners, fixture though they seem by the piano bench's side. There will always be music to keep the pianist company, but to the audience she will look a little less lonely.