I am faced with the performance of some older pieces of mine this spring, the first being my 1991 piano trio, Fantasy-Variations, on this Friday’s Wail of the Voice concert at Penn (see the posts below for more information). I heard a rehearsal of the piece the other day with Min-Young Kim, violin; Tom Kraines, cello; and Gregory DeTurck, piano. They are doing a fabulous job, there is no doubt about that, but what kind of composing job did I do 21 years ago?
It is a curious thing to hear a piece from that long ago. Lutoslawski referred to the experience as being like hearing the work of a younger colleague. I can’t say I feel a similar sense of distance, but I do recognize that I would have treated some ideas differently today than I did 2 decades ago. There are a few spots where the rhythms are unnecessarily tricky, others where the rhythm is too straightforward – it’s curious that there are miscalculations of both kinds. I hasten to say (given that I am trying to get you to come to Friday’s concert) that there are also spots that still sound OK! Perhaps more interesting than my subjective and confused sense of whether the piece is any good is the fact that there are aspects of the piece that are consistent with my later compositional practice, the most obvious being my interest in variation form. My Third Quartet (to be played this spring by the Daedalus Quartet) is built around a big variation form, and the Sonata-Fantasia for piano and synthesizer that I wrote for Lambert Orkis opens with a 25 minute variation set. (I later made that set into an independent piece (search “Primosch” and scroll down) for piano solo.) I think this continuing interest in writing variations partly stems from my experience as a jazz musician – playing choruses constitutes improvising variations.
Here is my program note on the Fantasy-Variations:
The theme that opens my Fantasy-Variations permeates the harmonic and melodic life of the 24 short episodes and coda that follow. However, in a few sections the relationships with the theme are more hidden than explicit; the fanciful connections between these portions and the opening theme suggested the work’s hybrid title. Yet even in these more wide-ranging variations the opening theme is usually still hovering nearby, often as a quiet presence contrasting with more animated gestures.
The piece may be understood as a kind of dream journal: a chain of brief entries that seem to vary greatly, yet rotate about a fixed constellation of types and obsessions, speaking a language of images at once logical and impossible, familiar and mysterious.
I wrote the Fantasy-Variations for the Leonardo Trio* in 1991 with the support of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in composition.
A recording of the piece is available on a disc from New World Records (see image above).
* I am sorry to say that the Leonardo Trio doesn’t seem to exist any longer, although the members continue to be active in other musical pursuits. A Google search shows a Trio Leonardo and another Leonardo Trio, neither of which is group for which I wrote. The members were Erica Kiesewetter, violin; Jonathan Spitz, cello; and Cameron Grant, piano. Besides my own disc, they can be heard on an album of music by Morris Rosenzweig and a disc of Smetana, Martinu and Shostakovich.