ensemble chamber orchestra (1[picc].2[II=CA].2[II=BCl].2 – 2.1[PiccTpt].0.0 – perc[timp] – solo piano – strings)
duration 23 minutes
written summer 2015
commissioned by St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, and Orchestra of St. Luke’s
premièred November 27, 2015, St. Paul, MN
published by Andres & Sons Bakery
There’s an interesting process of distancing that happens after I’ve written a piece; when it’s brand new it feels like an extension of my body, but when a few years have passed, it begins to merge with other music I know well—I almost can’t remember having written it myself. I’m fascinated by composers who feel compelled to revise their work years, or decades, after the fact. Ives did this constantly, returning to add layers of complexity in sedimentary fashion; the two versions of Brahms’s Op. 8 trio encapsulate the difference between promising novice and master.
Beethoven gave his early second piano concerto (“not one of my best”, in his own estimation) a kind of renovation in the form of a new cadenza, 20 years down the line (around the time he was working on the Emperor concerto). It’s wonderfully jarring in that he makes no concessions to his earlier style; for a couple of minutes, we’re plucked from a world of conventional gestures into a future-world of obsessive fugues and spiraling modulations. Like any good cadenza, it’s made from those same simple gestures—an arpeggiated triad, a sequence of downward scales—but uses them as the basis for a miniature fantasia.
My third piano concerto, The Blind Banister, is a whole piece built over this fault line in Beethoven’s second, trying to peer into the gap. I tried as much as possible to start with those same extremely simple elements Beethoven uses; however, my piece is not a pastiche or an exercise in palimpsest. It doesn’t even directly quote Beethoven. There are some surface similarities to his concerto (a three-movement structure, a B-flat tonal center) but these are mostly red herrings. The best way I can describe my approach to writing the piece is: I started writing my own cadenza to Beethoven’s concerto, and ended up devouring it from the inside out.
Solo piano introduces the main theme of the piece—one of those slowly descending scales. It’s actually two scales, one the melody and the other (lagging behind) the accompaniment, creating little rubbing major-second suspensions against each other with every move. This idea is later splayed out and reversed in a rising sequence of loping, two-note phrases. This “Sliding Scale” is presented over and over, forming the basis for movement of continuous variations, constantly revising themselves. Orchestral layers pile up around the scale, building dissonant towers out of those major seconds. One last, long downward scale gathers enough momentum to launch the second movement scherzo, “Ringing Weights”.
Here, the downward scale is transformed into a propulsive motor in solo strings, driving bright cascades of chromatic chords in the solo part. This movement is also made from varying modules, each increasingly elaborate—though this time, each successive module descends a step, the scale theme subverting the structure of the piece, trying to push it inexorably downwards.
The piano works hard to reverse this process in a trio section, trading a stumbling, step-wise melody with gentle orchestral echoes of the ringing chords from the scherzo. As the piano music lurches to its feet, it grows progressively more boisterous, and the steps move faster, whirling themselves into a return of the scherzo material, this time with full orchestra and pounding timpani.
Orchestra suddenly falls away, leaving the pianist to wrestle with the two basic elements of the piece—rising and falling. Arpeggios leap up and over each other, unbound to any meter, vaulting through the harmonic atmosphere before plunging down to the lowest E. As the arpeggios begin to trace more regular patterns, the orchestra drifts back in with another long scale, descending step by step, introducing a richly-harmonized Coda, really a super-compressed recapitulation of the first movement, the piano finally rushing off into an ambiguous future.
The Blind Banister was written for and dedicated to pianist Jonathan Biss.
The piece was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize.
Like when the light goes out on the stairs and the hand follows—with confidence—the blind banister that finds its way in the darkness.
-Tomas Tranströmer, Schubertiana