ensemble full orchestra (2[II=picc].2.2[II=bcl].2[II=cbsn] – 188.8.131.52 – timp-perc – 2 solo pianos – strings)
duration 18 minutes
written summer-fall 2016
commissioned by Britten Sinfonia
premièred February 25, 2017, The Barbican, London, UK
published by Andres & Sons Bakery
I’ve become increasingly interested in using small discrepancies in music—a rhythmic hiccup in an otherwise regular theme, the distance between two pianos, the dissonant overhang of a note—to give rise to larger musical structures. In Steady Hand, a concerto for two pianos, I tried to make this process as audible as I could.
Writing for two of the same instrument naturally makes this easier. Throughout the piece, the pianos mirror, foil, and compete with each other. This conspiratorial dynamic is natural in chamber music, but makes for a slightly odd concerto. Where does the orchestra fit in, superseded in its traditional roles of antagonist or accompanist? Here, it’s a third character in the drama, with its own collective goals sometimes intersecting with the soloists but often standing in stark contrast to them.
In fact, the pianos don’t play in consort with the orchestra until more than halfway through the first movement (Groundwork). The piece opens with one of those deceptively simple melodies, incorporating a small rhythmic kink, thereby jumping forward by an 8th-note with each repetition. The second piano plays the same theme, offset by a 16th-note, adding another layer of rhythmic activity. But the music stays quite regular, strophic, even singable.
The orchestra, in contrast, is overcast and ambiguous, playing a slow, chromatic chorale which drifts downwards, never resolving, over which slowed-down fragments of the piano’s melody echo and disappear. This dichotomy—simple, concrete musical objects fracturing into arrhythmic clouds—delineates the musical structure throughout the rest of the piece. Instigated by more and more complex rhythmic jostling, the second half of the movement is a loud mirror of the first.
The second movement, Bruckner Boulevard, takes the “fast notes” from the first movement theme and compresses them into rollicking piano arpeggios, under which a stretched-out version of the chromatic chorale is played. This is eventful, distracted-driving music—densely packed city blocks seen from the window of a speeding taxi. Two distinct processes work themselves out during the first half of this movement: rhythmic durations become longer and slower, while the harmony changes faster. Eventually, they reconcile, falling into a new section in which the pianos play ornate arches over a now-stable orchestral pedal. As the arches expand in range, volume, and harmonic complexity, all of the previous materials in the piece begin to ricochet around the orchestra until all the themes are finally heard together in a big, brassy pileup.
Steady Hand is dedicated to John Adams, who continues to be an inspiration and a lodestar.