Vary Pianistic

Theodore Presser Co. has issued my Piano Variations. Thanks to master engraver/editor Ken Godel, the score looks great – see if you agree by going here, scrolling down, and clicking on the link for sample pages.

It has been a long journey to this point. Back in the late 20th Century, pianist Lambert Orkis asked me to write him a piece for piano and synthesizer. This was for a milennium-inspired project he called “From Hammers to Bytes”, a recital program with a big sonata just for piano by Richard Wernick, and a big piece for piano and synth on the second half. Originally Lambert wanted me to write for piano and Clavinova, an instrument that I didn’t find particularly inspiring. We finally agreed on a Kurzweil, which would give me a vastly richer array of sounds to work with, compared with the Clavinova. The result was my Sonata-Fantasia, which Lambert gave a few brilliant performances and subsequently recorded for Bridge Records, along with the new sonata Dick Wernick had written for him. I knew the Kurz, like any other synth, would start to become obsolete the day I drove it off the lot, so to speak, and the more I took advantage of the capabilities of that particular synth, the more I increased the difficulty of playing the piece with some other keyboard. I very much wanted to write the piece for Lambert, but I also wanted to come out of the process with something that other musicians could play. I eventually devised a plan where a portion of the Sonata-Fantasia could, with some adjustments, live again as a solo piano piece. The first movement of the piece is a big set of variations, running about 25 minutes, and that became the now-published Piano Variations.

Lambert wanted me to think about the history of the piano while writing my piece. (You should know that in addition to being an astounding pianist, best known as Anne-Sophie Mutter’s recital partner, Lambert has an interest in historical keyboards, and has played and recorded on various old instruments, or modern reconstructions modeled on old keyboards.)  We talked about the ability of the Kurzweil to emulate the sound of historic keyboards, and Lambert tracked down a set of impressive fortepiano samples. (One curious issue arose – when using the fortepiano samples, should I employ notes that are not actually on the fortepiano keyboard? I wrote in two different versions for that moment, one with bass notes lower than any fortepiano can play, one that sticks to the instrument’s actual range.) The stock harpsichord sample in the Kurz was attractive as well. Most of the Kurzweil patches I used are synth sounds of one kind or another, many percussive, some more atmospheric, and some used to modify the attack and decay characteristics of the acoustic piano. But given those samples of early keyboards, it was a short step from there to writing variations that would invoke earlier keyboard idioms – not earlier harmonic or melodic styles, but more matters of keyboard layout and texture. The harmony and melody in my piece remains rooted in the materials in my theme (see the score samples mentioned above), but, for example, there is a variation using a harpsichord patch that is laid out like one of the Goldberg Variations – two voices in canon and a third free voice. The fortepiano variation invokes one of the Schubert impromptus – this in honor of Lambert’s recording of the Schubert on fortepiano. (I permit myself the only actual quotation from an already existing piece in that movement.) The climactic variation has passages modeled fairly closely on the Chopin C-sharp minor etude from Op. 10, and there are other references throughout the piece to Chopin, Messiaen, stride piano, and even the 19th century pianist/composer Kalkbrenner, with a passage that employs his “three-handed” layout: a melody played by the thumbs surrounded by two-handed arpeggios. Contemporary composers are also in the background of some of the variations, with hints of textures you might associate with the music of three of my mentors: George Crumb, Richard Wernick, and Mario Davidovsky. The piece thus becomes not just variations on a theme, but a collection of varied approaches to the piano itself.

Practically speaking, the synth and piano are arranged at right angles to one another, in the manner of a piano/celesta doubling by an orchestral keyboardist. (Lambert is the principal keyboard for the National Symphony.) Lambert preferred this to the stacking of keyboards that pop performers sometimes prefer, since that arrangement puts significant restraints on conventional piano technique. I had Lambert switch back and forth between instruments a good bit, sometimes playing both keyboards at once. Since the synth was at the left of the piano, this meant there are a few passages where Lambert’s left hand was playing in a high register on the Kurz and his right hand in a low register on the Steinway – perfectly plausible, but seemingly impractical when you look in the score, since it appears the left hand is playing five or six octaves above the right! I remember checking with Lambert repeatedly to make sure we were in agreement about which side the synthesizer would be placed.*

I prepared the piano version of the movement in time for a 50th birthday concert of my music a few years ago, and the superb Stephen Gosling gave the first performance. I finally (thanks to Ken) got around to preparing a clean copy of the score more recently, and the result is there on Presser’s website. Thank you, Lambert, for commissioning the original version of the piece, and thanks to the MacDowell Colony, where a big chunk of the first movement was devised.

I will return to writing for piano in an upcoming consortium commission, about which more soon.

*) I didn’t want to run into the problem I once heard conductor Arthur Weisberg describe in connection with a performance of the Carter Double Concerto, where, before the first rehearsal, he carefully prepared the beat patterns he would need for the closing portion of the piece where the two portions of the ensemble are in different meters. He was startled when he arrived at rehearsal to realize the ensembles were on the opposite sides of the stage from what he expected.