All Alone

Daniel Felsenfeld had a fine idea on Twitter, inviting composers to list their works for solo performers – an obvious resource for a time of pandemic when we are staying home. I listed my relevant pieces there, but would like to mention there here as well.

There are three solo piano pieces in my catalog. The oldest is Secret Geometry, the same as the name for this blog. This is a piece with pre-recorded electronic sound, what kids these days would call “fixed media” and what I have to stop myself from calling “tape” even though that’s the medium I used at the time to record my MIDI realization of the electronic component. I wrote the piece for the brilliant Aleck Karis, perhaps the pianist I heard most frequently when attending new music concerts during my Columbia days. Aleck is a long time faculty member at UC San Diego. This was the first piece of mine to appear on CD but the label on which it appeared – CRI (Composers Recordings Inc.) no longer exists. However, New World Records has the CRI catalog, and lists a lot of CRI items on its website – not sure how complete the listing is. The album with Secret Geometry is not easy to find on the website; if you search for “primosch” you will only get the all-Primosch cd Icons, which was recorded after Aleck’s album. Despite being an album of pieces for piano and electronic sound, it doesn’t come up when you filter the CRI catalog for electronic music. However, a search for “aleck  karis” will finally yield this page which features sound clips of my piece.

There are two more recent piano pieces. I wrote a big Sonata-Fantasia on a commission from Lambert Orkis who wanted a piece involving both a piano and a Kurzweil synthesizer. Since I knew it was extremely unlikely anyone else would play the piece (for one thing, that model of Kurz was out of production before I finished the piece), I planned on making a portion of the piece work for solo piano. The first movement is a substantial variation set, running about 24 minutes, and it is available from Presser as Piano Variations. The idea of the original version was that ghosts of the piano’s past would be evoked in some of the variations. For example, there is one that refers to Schubert that uses fortepiano samples; a canon with a third free voice – a texture that recalls the Goldberg Variations – uses a harpsichord sample. However, most of the variations employ a more wide-ranging palette of electronic sounds and do not refer to earlier styles. In the piano solo version, earlier keyboard idioms are evoked simply by texture and keyboard layout. You might say the piece becomes variations of the piano as well as variations for piano, though I suppose every substantial variation set does that to some extent. Lambert recorded the entire Sonata for Bridge in its original version, but the piano solo version awaits a first recording. (You should check out the Wernick Sonata #2 on that Bridge album – Dick is a truly under-appreciated master.) Here is a handsomely made video of Anna Kislitsyna’s brilliant performance of the Piano Variations:

While there is presently no CD of the Piano Variations, a second recording of Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift is forthcoming.  This set of five short character pieces or preludes, running about 14 minutes, was recorded for Centaur by the wonderful Youmee Kim; here’s the second movement:

Ryan McCullough has recorded the piece for an Albany disc that I anticipate will be coming out in the next several months. (UPDATE: It comes out May 15!) It includes some songs of mine as well as music of John Harbison. Ryan’s wife Lucy Fitz Gibbon is the soprano on the album, and the performances are fantastic throughout.

I wrote Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift (the title comes from an Auden poem) for a consortium of 12 pianists. Check out a substantial post on the piece here, including score excerpts.

My other solo pieces are early works. There are two pieces with electronic sound: Particles for clarinet, and Aria for oboe. In both cases the electronic component needs some technological attention, so if you are interested, let me know, and I will work on getting together something that is presentable. No electronics are required for my solo violin Variations. Aria is available from what is now called Wise Music Classical. Originally published by Gunther Schuller’s Margun firm, the pieces went to Associated Music (the BMI sibling of G. Schirmer) when Gunther sold the business. Presently, Associated is under the Wise Music Classical umbrella. Wise, unlike Associated, identifies the pieces as being under the Margun imprint, instead of simply being absorbed into Associated. I believe the violin Variations were also in the Margun catalog, but they are not listed on my page at Wise; I will look into that. For the moment be in touch with me if you are interested in a score of the Variations or in Particles.

Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift

The piano consortium commission is finished. I sent out the remaining two movements this past week, completing a set of five that will run about 13 minutes.

The first movement is quite bleak – here’s an excerpt:

A nice cheerful way to start a piece, don’t you think? The movement stays in the bass clef for most of its duration, tries to ascend, crescendos as it goes, the rapid figures get more and more wild, the music reaches the middle of the keyboard – but then collapses back to the depths. The title for this movement is from a Stephen Crane poem:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter–bitter, ” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

(Those closing lines also serve as the title of a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, a fact unknown to me until I googled the Crane.) This first movement is followed by a moderato that is mostly in the treble clef. (There is an excerpt here.) The contrast of registers is a strategy I learned from playing sets of piano pieces by Crumb and Martino. In Crumb’s Makrokosmos, Volume I, the first piece is similarly focused on the lowest register – the figure at the top of the keyboard at the end of that movement is startlingly fresh, as is the next movement – which is all in the treble clef. (Once, in the Netherlands, I had to play Mak. I on an old piano with fewer than 88 keys, which required a quick adjustment to the end of the first movement!)  Crumb’s use of short, sharp gestures in a higher register for the second movement serves not only to contrast with the opening movement, but also takes advantage of the resonance created by the low cluster held over from the first movement with the sostenuto pedal. The high staccato sounds excite sympathetic vibrations in those freely sounding bass strings. In the third movement, Crumb keeps the low cluster and mostly stays in the upper register again, though adding a few long-ringing bass notes. The Martino piece I am thinking of is another big set of relatively short movements, the Fantasies and Impromptus. Here the first movement is registrally quite wide-ranging; even the very first phrase spans the keyboard. The second movement resides in the upper half of the keyboard – the restriction of register and the resulting airborne texture provides welcome contrast with the previous movement. It is like chamber music after the full orchestra of the first movement. We worry so much about fine distinctions in composition, trying to find exactly the right pitch – as well we should;  but the grosser distinctions – whether a passage or an entire movement is mostly high notes or mostly low notes – can be more important than one might think.

The central movement of my set is a “Gigue-Scherzo” (would Scherzo-Gigue sound better?) that I wrote about here and here; the scherzo and the moderato mentioned previously are both discussed here.

I haven’t blogged yet about the slow movement that follows. Here’s an excerpt:

Instead of just “Nocturne”, I’m now going to call the movement “Nocturnal Obsessions”; the tritones of the steady eighth note ostinato continue almost throughout, with short motivic cells floating above. This type of night music is indebted to Crumb – who got it from Bartok. To see what I mean, check out the slow movement of Bartok’s Out of Doors.

The last movement is called “Contraption” (the program note below will explain the title). This is a light-hearted piece, opening with a sort of fanfare:

and continuing with an oom-pah accompaniment that hints at a rag or stride texture. There are some simple but fun rhythmic games going on. I like this one:

where the steady eighth notes are at odds with the assymmetrical melody. When this is revisited later, the left hand eighth notes speed up and there are hints of Nancarrow and of stride:

Here are the movement listing and program note for the whole set:

—————————————————–

Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift

Five preludes for piano

Program Listing:

1) Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart

2) A Gracious Dance

3) Gigue-Scherzo

4) Nocturnal Obsessions

5) Contraption

This work was commissioned with the generous support of:

Daniel Barber
Geoffrey Burleson
Eliza Garth
Judith Gordon
Stephen Gosling
Aleck Karis
Catherine Kautsky
You-mee Kim
Jon-Luke Kirton
Ryan MacEvoy McCullough
Eric Moe
Christopher Oldfather
Linda Reichert
James Winn

Program Note:

Auden’s poem The Composer speaks of how painters and poets must “translate” from images of the real world or experienced feeling while the work of composers is something different:

Only your notes are pure contraption,
Only your song is absolute gift.

 Now, there are abstract paintings that “aspire to the state of music” in Walter Pater’s phrase, and the conjunction of music and purity is questionable. But there is still something to the notion that music is about the play of forms that exist in the domain of music, and nowhere else. In this work, rather than setting a text or reflecting on some external image, I wanted to write a piece that would live in that musical realm.

Therefore, the individual titles for this set sprang from the music, rather than the other way around. The first movement’s title comes from a Stephen Crane poem, while the last’s reflects Auden’s sense of music as a self-contained construction, but also the dictionary definition of a contraption: “a machine or device that appears strange or unnecessarily complicated, and often badly made or unsafe.”

The plan is for each of the fourteen pianists to play the piece at least once in the next few years – I’ll be letting you know the details when the performances get scheduled.

My next tasks will be to continue work on some orchestral songs with texts by Susan Stewart, as well as a new motet for Emmanuel Church. There will also be a few things happening that I have been neglecting, like calling the plumber and raking leaves…

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.