French Music for Piano on Bridge Records

9459_cover_compact  9456a-b_cover_compact



Francis Poulenc: Music for Piano (1918-1959). Aleck Karis, piano.

Pierre Boulez: Complete Music for Solo Piano. Marc Ponthus, piano.

Yes, both composers are French, but they couldn’t occupy more contrasting places on the aesthetic spectrum. What’s consistent across these two albums is the high quality of the piano playing. Ponthus commands the extremes of Boulez’s piano writing with dazzling and heroic virtuosity. No heroism is called for by Poulenc, but the many short movements of these pieces do require deft characterization, only possible with Karis’s command of subtle and varied nuances.

Almost all of the 8 pieces on the Poulenc album were new to me, the one exception being the Trois Mouvements Perpétuels. The big pieces here were the most intriguing – a set of Fifteen Improvisations dating form 1933-59 and a Thème Varié from 1951. There’s more variety and weight to this music than just the charming cocktail piano of the Mouvements Perpétuels. (I used to play those as part of my piano bar repertoire.)

I’m afraid the astounding brilliance of Marc Ponthus’s playing did not change me into a big Boulez fan. I find the relatively late Incises (in its 2001 version) and the very early Douze Notations (1945) to be more attractive than the three sonatas. The shattered narrative of the Third Sonata – like handfuls of multi-colored glass shards – simply doesn’t sustain my interest. The Second Sonata has become something of a repertoire piece, but if you are looking to program a big mid-century atonal piano sonata I would suggest the Sessions 3rd, Rochberg’s Sonata-Fantasia, Wolpe’s Battle Piece (a sonata in all but name), or, dating from a little later, the Wuorinen 2nd, or the two sonatas of Richard Wernick (only the First seems to be on YouTube), all much less widely played works that appeal to me more than the Boulez sonatas.


Now Is the Time for Secret Geometry

wrtiI just got word that Kile Smith‘s WRTI radio show, Now Is the Time, will feature my Secret Geometry for piano and electronic sound on tonight’s show – Sunday, August 25 at 10 pm on the US east coast; go here to listen.

I named my blog after this piece; my program note for the work might help explain why:

Secret Geometry can be heard as a short piano sonata, with the movements forming a typical fast – slow – fast pattern.  The electronic sounds on tape are tightly interwoven with the piano, often serving to extend and transform the piano’s sound.  The goal is to create a hybrid sound world.

The phrase “secret geometry” is used to describe the play of forms in certain paintings, referring to structural patterns that are employed to organize the pictorial elements.  Since the electronic medium permits a composer to focus on the micro-structure of individual sounds, as well as more customary concerns with patterns of pitch and rhythm, it seemed appropriate to choose a title that emphasizes the careful shaping of every compositional element.  But this is not to neglect the spiritual impulse of the work.  After all, the obscure motion of the Holy Spirit herself describes a secret geometry, what Thomas Merton called “a hidden wholeness”.

Written for the distinguished pianist Aleck Karis, Secret Geometry was composed with the assistance of a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.  The tape was realized in the Presser Electronic Music Studio of the University of Pennsylvania.

In line with the George Crumb quote above, I think of my music as being about a “system of proportions” – a secret geometry – “in the service of a spiritual impulse”.

Aleck’s recording of the piece was originally issued on a CRI (Composers Recordings, Inc.) disc. Though CRI no longer exists, their huge and important catalog has been made available once again by New World Records.

Click on the Discography link above for more of my music on disc.

Karis and Freitas Play Stockhausen

Aleck Karis was one of the top pianists in New York for new music when I lived there in the ’80s, and I was fortunate enough to hear Aleck play my music on several occasions. I wrote Secret Geometry for piano and electronic sound for him (that’s where the name of this blog comes from), and he subsequently recorded that piece. He also played and recorded my Icons for clarinet, piano and electronic sound. Aleck has been at UC San Diego for many years now. I had hoped to include Aleck as part of the consortium of pianists who are to perform my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, but we couldn’t work out the details; he still might play the piece at some point, but it will be outside the framework of the consortium. Aleck is a quietly spectacular player, with a wide-ranging repertoire; his large discography includes Glass, Carter, Cage, Reynolds, Feldman, and Davidovsky, as well as Chopin and Mozart, among dozens of other composers.

Here is a video of Aleck with Kian Freitas performing one of Stockhausen’s most enduring pieces, Mantra for two ring-modulated pianos.

Many, Many Pianists

A few times on this blog I have made passing mention of a composition project of mine for a group of pianists. I’ve hesitated to write about it in more detail, partly because the list of pianists was still in formation, partly because I was having trouble getting going on the piece. Well, those two things are still the case, but I think it is time to go public with this.

Business has been slow since the 09-10 season when I had two orchestral premieres in quick succession in Chicago and Albany – an orchestral peak followed by a rather quiet trough. Since paying work was scarce, I decided to create an opportunity myself, and contacted most of the pianists I know, plus several I didn’t know. I invited them to each chip in a little money and I would write a solo piece that they would all promise to play at least once, thus addressing the perennial problem of the non-existent second performance. Somewhat to my surprise, I have come up with a substantial list of wonderful artists who have signed on. There are still one or two possible participants, but here is the list so far:

Daniel Barber
Geoffrey Burleson
Eliza Garth
Judith Gordon
Stephen Gosling
Aleck Karis
Catherine Kautsky
Ryan McCollough
Eric Moe
Christopher Oldfather
Linda Reichert
James Winn

(twelve pianists, one for each tone, I suppose)

It is hard to describe the mega-giga-terabytes of talent on that list without falling into a lot of program note bio cliches. What I propose to do instead is let you know a little about how these folks got on my list in a series of future posts. For now, I’ll just say I am extremely lucky to have this group of artists on board.

I should say there are a number of people who wanted to participate, but felt that their schedules were too overloaded already – as well as a few folks who just politely declined. It was kind of everybody to even consider the notion.

So, a piano piece. It can’t be just a bagatelle, people are paying for this. It can’t be a forty minute sonata as such things are pretty tough to program. So I am thinking of something in the 12 minute range. The next question is, a short sonata? a single movement fantasia? or a set of short pieces? I have been striving toward the third of these formal schemes; as I said in my last post, I am intrigued by the idea of building a form from a number of short movements. For one thing, it gets away from the neo-classical “fast-slow-fast” pattern of movements, a sonata strategy which is perfectly plausible, but maybe a little tired. You might suggest that a variation set would be a way to bring order to a group of short pieces, but, while I enjoy writing variations, I did that relatively recently (in a piece derived from the sonata mentioned above). It is still possible that this new work will turn into a single movement with multiple sections, but right now I am thinking of a group of short pieces that are ordered to form an expressive arc. The difference is perhaps subtle, but it has to do with how much the individual elements get rounded off into relatively independent forms; how much, if any, material recurs; how much the material is developed, and how much it is simply presented. You might say I am thinking along the lines of preludes rather than a fantasy or ballade at the moment, but it is still early in the process. I am still making sketches of different kinds of piano music, being a little indiscriminate, just writing it all down. It is starting to become apparent that some of the sketches will be more fruitful than others, but whether they will grow into little pieces or sections of a bigger piece is not clear.

As for a title, I am thinking of borrowing from Auden’s poem about the unique nature of music: Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift.

Secret Geometry in Birmingham

Pianist Jon-Luke Kirton (at left) will play my Secret Geometry for piano and electronic sound this Wednesday in the  Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatory. This is the first performance in the UK.

Secret Geometry was the first piece I made in the Presser Electronic Music Studio at Penn. It dates from 1993, and used the midi technology of the time, including a DX7, a Proteus, a few other synths, and a couple of samples triggered from an Akai sampler, including my favorite – the sound of hitting a metal music stand with a pair of pliers. Sequencing was done with what was then simply called Performer (now Digital Performer) and sounds were edited with Opcode’s Galaxy universal librarian/editor (would that there was a truly functional such program on the market today – I’ve been disappointed in Unisyn and MidiQuest.)

The piece is in three movements, sort of a short sonata. (Jargon Alert. Skipping to the next paragraph is perfectly reasonable.) The opening is a set of variations, and is the first time I tried a procedure that I subsequently used in a couple of other pieces: it’s a twelve-tone piece, with 12 transpositions of a row stated in an essentially monophonic texture. The same music is then counterpointed with a similar succession of derived rows, forming aggregates. This music is repeated one more time, but now with four rows going. From the point of view of the overall form, it is like playing three choruses of the same tune. Rhythm and dynamics are treated freely. All this is rather simple by the standards of  composers more seriously invested in 12-tone possibilities. The point is not that I think a bell goes off in your head when you hear the 12th note of an aggregate – I find that a little silly. Rather, it is a way of saturating the music with a few motivic cells. As George Perle said to us in class one day, Schoenberg’s Op. 33a isn’t about 12-tone rows, it’s about four chords. The second movement is not twelve-tone, but floats a few motifs over  slowly changing clustery chords that gradually expand in register, then contract. It’s back to a simple 12-tone procedure in the last movement, a toccata that is basically a very fast single line, with a few moments where the line coalesces into three-note chords.

My point of departure for the idea of combining piano and tape is the Davidovsky Synchronism model: a tight interweaving of electronic and live sounds.  I was not particularly interested in novelty of timbre for its own sake although I have tried to employ an attractive palette of colors.  The function of the electronic sound varies throughout the piece: sometimes it fuses with the piano; sometimes it provides a subsidiary accompaniment; sometimes it is an equal partner, like a chamber music collaborator or an orchestra accompanying a concerto soloist.   As I was working on the last movement, I felt a need to bump up the tempo, just to kick it along a little more. The new tempo (sixteenths notes at quarter = 180) that sounded pleasingly lively when played by the computer turned out to sound omigod fast when played by a live pianist. Aleck Karis, who premiered the piece, handled this challenge, indeed the whole piece, brilliantly. You can hear this on the CRI recording of the piece. CRI (Composers Recordings Inc.) is out of business, but theoretically New World Records has the catalog, and will burn the CRI cds on demand, though I have to say I haven’t tried this yet.

As for the title, the phrase “secret geometry” is used by art historians to describe the play of forms in certain paintings, referring to structural patterns that are employed to organize the pictorial elements.  Since the electronic medium permits a composer to focus on the micro-structure of individual sounds, as well as more customary concerns with patterns of pitch and rhythm, it seemed appropriate to choose a title that emphasizes the careful shaping of every compositional element.  But this is not to neglect the spiritual impulse of the work.  After all, the obscure motion of the Holy Spirit herself describes a secret geometry, what Thomas Merton called “a hidden wholeness”.