Well, if you’ve been to my site, you know that I’m supposed to be at work on a cycle of piano pieces. I wish I could say that I’m stuck on them, but that would imply that I’ve started–with a musical to conduct at the community theatre, the Musicircus to put together, then a trip to Nashville and a few concerts and basketball games, I have yet to write Note One. Very embarrassing. I paused to write a little choral piece after I finished the new horn and marimba piece for Nancy Joy, thinking that later that week I would dig into the piano pieces, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Not that I haven’t been thinking about it. I have the first piece complete in my mind–I can hear the beginning, the ending, and have an idea about the middle. The cycle is going to be called “Starry Wanderers” and each piece will deal with a planet. Perhaps a more scientific version of Holst’s best-known piece (all based on astrology, which offends me as both an intellectual and a Christian, though the music is amazing in places). The first piece is Martian Meditation, a reflection on the dry, barren, cold world that is next out from us, a reminiscence of what is to come (or perhaps what could one day have been–has humanity peaked in our exploration of space?).
Anyone who has been in the same room while I was playing piano knows that I am no pianist. I do what I can, and I think I play well enough for my theory teaching (although it doesn’t always feel that way). So I’ve been casting about a little bit. Starry Wanderers will be my first extended work for solo piano, and in some ways I’m stumped.
I’ve been working my way through the Beethoven Piano Sonatas now for over two years, and I’m starting to wonder what I’ve really learned from this exercise about the piano (I’ve learned plenty about Beethoven). I suppose I would boil it down to this:
- Piano music is at heart rhythmic. The effects that Beethoven gets are often obscure on the page, and difficult to comprehend when played in “slow motion,” as I inevitably must, but when Ashkenazy takes over for me, they are there, clear as day.
- Piano music is at heart harmonic. The ultimate question to answer deals with what notes to push down, and this question has to be taken much more seriously than I have grown accustomed to. First, not every note is immediately available to the ten fingers. This is one thing that makes Beethoven so difficult–the mere density of notes means that not all of them are easy to acheive. Second, because of the limited timbre (even compared to, say, a piece for clarinet and piano) and limitations on dynamics (the two hands can play separate dynamics, but fingers on the same hand can do so only with difficulty), the members of a chord have a certain equality on solo piano that they don’t necessarily have in other media. As a rhythmic rather than a harmonic composer, this presents a challenge.
An additional problem is made clear at the blog Sonatas and Interludes. This is a major problem–how to write new piano music that isn’t just more George Winston. I don’t see myself as a “new-age” composer, and I certainly don’t want my music to sound that way. On the other hand, there is something to some of the cliches of the form. My first hearing of the music of Valentin Silvestrov left me very disappointed because it seemed very “new-age” in idiom. I resolved (because I have an unexplainable fascination for all things Ukrainian) to really listen again, and beneath the surface, I have come to believe that there is more than just trying to do whatever it is that “new-age” music purports to do for performers and listeners alike.
So… this is my problem. Tomorrow is a day off from teaching, but I will be at school, hopefully left alone long enough to get the first piece in the set down. Perhaps an update.