When I was set the task of coming up with an hour’s musical “self-portrait” I started to mentally categorize the relationships that comprise my musical life. There’s the self-contained: writing something to perform myself (which is how I began composing, about 20 years ago); writing for performers who aren’t me, which has its advantages and drawbacks; the reverse of that, when I perform someone else’s music—usually, but not always, that person being alive; then there’s a sea of conscious and unconscious influences on my own writing—teachers and friends, critics, the constant barrage of music in everyday life; and finally the lines between all these things to an audience, either real or imagined.
The six pieces I chose form a skeletal kind of connect-the-dots among these forces. I asked Ted Hearne to write me something about a year ago. I’ve known Ted since graduate school, and we’ve gone on to become collaborators, confidantes, and Brooklyn neighbors. The five-movement Parlor Diplomacy (I’ll play the first three) is by turns hilarious, combative, and beautifully reverent; tropes from the Classical canon are severed, chopped up, and recontextualized into something new and strange, yet oddly familiar. In the first movement, that element is a banal five-one trill; in the second, it’s the falling arpeggiated thirds from (not coïncidentally!) Brahms’s B minor intermezzo. The third movement, perhaps the heart of the piece, is a painstaking Gradus ad Parnassum, which revels in the fragmentary beauty of learning.
I took on related 19th-century baggage in How can I live in your world of ideas?, the centerpiece from my 2010 album Shy and Mighty. This piece, however, is more concerned with integrating capital-C Classical Music into my own, 21st-century world, and all the difficulty and satisfaction that results from it. Conceived as a series of escalating interruptions between two pianos, I subsequently arranged it for solo performer. This demands a unique split-personality virtuosity.
Ingram Marshall was one of my graduate school professors, though our composition lessons were as likely to take place hunting for mushrooms in the nearby woods as at the piano. Authentic Presence is one of Ingram’s few purely acoustic pieces. The electronic-music tools of delay, reverb, and sampling are integral to his composing style, taking their place alongside 1970s California minimalism, Balinese and Javanese harmonies, and early American hymns in his musical nature preserve. Hazy memories of the civil rights protest song “We Shall Overcome” cycle through the dramatic episodes of Authentic Presence; the piece has a pleasantly un-rigorous formal logic to it, concerned perhaps with following a train of thought rather than any set musical program.
During a concert year or so ago, I had the spur-of-the-moment idea to follow Authentic Presence directly with the first intermezzo of Brahms’s op. 119. It was a game of harmonic free-association more than anything (the piece begins with the same major-seventh chord Ingram’s ends on). But I liked the effect so much that I decided to retain the pairing. It’s often said that the late piano pieces are like super-concentrated versions of Brahms’s symphonies and sonatas, and op. 119 no. 1 might be the most intensely distilled of the lot. The skeleton is deceptively traditional—a simple A-B-A form made up of regular eight-bar segments. But the music constantly subverts these expectations, playing little rhythmic and contrapuntal games, creating chains of ever-longer nested phrases. There’s so much subterfuge going on that it allows a delicious interpretational freedom: one can’t possibly do justice to every element in a single performance, but any choice will work out all right. It ends in one of those trademark Brahmsian twilights, summing up far more than the piece’s three minutes could possibly contain.
Schumann’s work is at times denigrated (quite unfairly, I think) because of the forms he chose to work in—suites of instrumental or vocal miniatures. He struggled with larger genres, and his sonatas, quartets, and symphonies are routinely ignored by musicians and audiences. They lack the effortless, endless melodic flights of Schubert and the architectural mass and stolidity of Beethoven or Brahms.
But Schumann’s strength—the ability to conceive a wild array of seemingly disparate elements within a fragmentary structure and create a coherent musical statement—is just as valuable, and perhaps rarer. In the piano suite Kreisleriana, he nests recurring material in telescopic movements, alternating between serene and stormy. A couple of summers ago I developed a severe obsession with this piece, which led to the creation of a “companion” to play alongside it. I wanted to create a similar kind of form, at first appearing to be a series of miniatures, but from a bird’s eye view revealing a coherent whole. The title I chose—It takes a long time to become a good composer—is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the idea that musical duration equals compositional achievement (it’s also something my roommate once said, which was too good not to write down).
To close, I’ll play one of the most characteristically Schumannian miniatures: Vogel als Prophet (Bird as Prophet) from the set of nine Waldszenen, which focus on the natural world (a fantastic and not altogether reality-based one, for sure). Bird as Prophet surrounds a tiny, six-bar chorale (the “prophecy”?) with a gnomic swirl of arpeggios, each ending in an upward inflection. This music never really resolves; rather it continually questions what came before it—”What now? And what then?” The melody consists mainly of leading tones (the “wrong” notes which border the actual harmonies); even as the figuration of the music is fanciful, the affect is baleful, needling. The closing section is identical to the first; the bird is revealed a false prophet, and the piece is left as a series of unanswered questions.