Snow Day Miscellany

Well, not a snow day in the sense of schools being closed (it’s a Saturday, anyway), but it has been snowing much of the day here in Philadelphia – on April 9. Several things to catch up on here:

  • the Prism Quartet performance in New York that included my Stratigraphy was reviewed by Musical America. The complete review is behind a paywall online, but here’s what Bruce Hodges had to say in connection with my own piece:

    The afternoon ended with Stratigraphy (2016) by James Primosch, also on the University of Pennsylvania faculty. Introducing his piece, Primosch mentioned he was inspired by geology—the word refers to the analysis of strata—and by spectralism, after reading pianist Marilyn Nonken’s book, The Spectral Piano: From Liszt, Scriabin, and Debussy to the Digital Age (2014, Cambridge University Press). Also director of piano studies at NUY’s Steinhardt School, Nonken has long been at the forefront of contemporary piano music, and has commissioned many new works. Here, as a guest with the ensemble, she offered clean, expertly balanced keyboard sound, often in delicate tracery—a welcome counterpoint to the saxophones. Primosch makes maximum use of the instruments’ contrasting timbres, framing the quartet with the piano—the latter often at the extreme ends of the keyboard. Each of the six movements has its beauties, but I was most struck with “Game of Pairs” (a nod to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra), and the motoric sparkle of “Geochronologic.”

  • Pianist Geoffrey Burleson gave a very fine performance of my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift in its New York City premiere at Bargemusic last night. He ably captured the contrasting moods of this set, and the virtuosic aspects of the piece were completely under control. Geoff also played a movement from the piece earlier in the week at a Music & More program, also in NYC. I was thoroughly impressed by the remainder of Geoff’s program, which included music by Yehudi Wyner, Missy Mazzoli, and David Rakowski, plus Geoff’s own piece based on Raymond Scott’s Powerhouse, along with the fruits of Geoff’s researches into the solo piano music of Saint-Saens, new territory for me.
  • The distinguished pianist Lambert Orkis is having an array of his Temple University students play my Piano Variations at Temple this coming Monday at 2:45 in Rock Hall. Each of his students is taking on a few variations from the piece, a set that is based on the first movement from my Sonata-Fantasia for piano and synthesizer, a work I wrote for Lambert back in 2001. Knowing the piano and synth version was unlikely to receive many performances, I made this version for piano alone of the big first movement of the sonata. It will be fascinating to hear the varied approaches these talented young artists take to the piece. There is an excerpt from the score here.

Here’s a shot of Geoff and I after his performance:IMG_1260

Obsessing in NYC

1451406169421Geoffrey Burleson will be playing my complete Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift at Bargemusic this coming Friday, April 8 at 8 pm – it’s the first performance of the whole set in NYC. But if you can’t make it to that concert, a movement from Contraption called “Nocturnal Obsessions” is part of Geoff’s contribution to a Music & More concert at Good Shepherd Church in NYC this coming Tuesday, April 5, at 7:30 pm. More info here.

“Contraption” on the barge

I just got word that the brilliant Geoffrey Burleson will give the first New York City performance of my set of piano pieces Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift. He will be playing the piece at Bargemusic on April 8, with a preview of one of the movements at an April 5 event at Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church, 152 W. 66th Street in NYC.

I first heard Geoff’s playing on Barbara White‘s excellent disc “Apocryphal Stories”, later enjoying his disc of the complete Arthur Berger piano music. Check out the videos on his website, including music by David Rakowski and Jacob TV.

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.