The album I Still Play is out today, available to hear on the platform of your choice. I’ve written previously about the origins of this music, but here’s the liner note I wrote, which gets into a bit more depth about each individual piece.
The existence of I Still Play as an album is a bit of a paradox. Each of these 11 tributes to Bob Hurwitz was written for an audience of one, on a particular Steinway in a specific Upper West Side living room. And yet here they are, making their way into the wider world. None are loftily ambitious or daringly experimental compositions. Rather, each distills an aspect of its author’s voice to a concentrated miniature. The prevailing tone is conversational rather than declamatory, though it’s a wide-ranging conversation. Large questions are posed but rarely answered in full. If the listener has the odd feeling of having stumbled into an exchange between two friends and missing an inside joke or shared reference here and there—that’s not far from the truth.
Composers are usually known for works that push extremes of length, complexity, virtuosity, volume, scope, profundity—the St. Matthew Passions or Rite of Springs of the world. (Few dissertations have been written on Ravel’s Menuet sur la nom de Haydn, for example). Yet over the course of a career, short pieces written for friends and relatives, music for weddings and birthdays, gifts for patrons and mentors, and other occasional works, can provide a different kind of insight into a composer’s voice. These pieces can contain unrealized potential, and have often become studies for larger works. But just as often, they’re follies, one-offs, blind alleys, musical ideas useful only for that original two or three minutes. In rare cases, these unassuming pieces become widely known, but this is a mixed blessing—Für Elise or Clair de Lune can sound mawkish and banal by the five hundredth hearing, when its charm has been subsumed by omnipresence. It’s enough that one almost feels a bit protective of the I Still Play cycle. These are pieces that best divulge their secrets in private—in small rooms, for a handful of audience, or perhaps none at all besides the pianist.
Nico Muhly’s Move launches itself with a brisk volley of arpeggios broken between the hands. But what appears at first to be a playful moto perpetuo soon comes to a sudden halt; quiet introspection lurks just beneath its kinetic surface. The phrases are directionally restless, moving up or down by step, never sitting still for long. They feint towards a groove only to undermine it with a rhythmic hiccup, an unexpected harmonic or tempo shift. The first 90 of the piece’s 100 bars occupy only the middle and upper registers of the keyboard; in the final 10, the piano’s lowest A sounds like a small revelation, as if it were suddenly equipped with organ pedals. The opening theme still sparkles in the treble, but now its feet are firmly on the ground—its chirpiness mellowed, its implications deepened—before finally trailing off. A last melancholic snatch of chorale gives Move its final punctuation mark.
A few of the works on I Still Play can be classified as études, not in the barn-burning mode of Chopin or Liszt, but of a gentler sort, befitting a pianist studying at their own leisure. Such is the case in my own Wise Words. I remember visiting Bob at his office during the fall of 2016 and noticing the score of Beethoven’s Op. 90 Piano Sonata open on the piano; Bob mentioned he’d been working on it. Beethoven’s second theme is accompanied by a particularly awkward pattern of broken 10ths in the left hand, which became the subject of Wise Words’s “étude.” This pattern is the harmonic and rhythmic motor of the piece, accompanying a fragmentary melody of descending fifths (which also gesture at Op. 90). Having never quite decided whether to be major or minor, the piece concludes, appropriately, on an open-ended dominant chord.
Rimsky or La Monte Young: are they history’s strangest pair of musical bedfellows, a case of mistaken identity, or mutually exclusive? Louis Andriessen’s piece opens with a clear reference to Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano—a “long tone” played at full volume—and continues with a sudden flurry of Flight of the Bumblebee-esque activity. But Rimsky, La Monte, and Louis aren’t the only ones in the room. The grinding figurations and predictably regular harmonic changes of Carl Czerny’s School of Velocity are clearly the butt of the joke (we could certainly categorize this as another étude) though occasionally they morph into an outtake from Stravinsky’s neoclassical period. It’s a thick stew of references contained in just two minutes of music, but the piece’s quirky, acerbic wit could only be Andriessen.
John Adams’s eponymous I Still Play is one of the meatier pieces in the collection—a full set of theme and variations—but its leisurely, ruminative pacing makes it feel even roomier than its five minutes. The theme is Adams at his most romantic, each phrase a series of sighs over a bass line that moves gingerly by half-steps. The triple-meter pulse, too slow for a waltz, instead marks a return to the gymnopédies found in his earlier Death of Klinghoffer and Century Rolls. Each of the subsequent variations also alludes to dance: the first an irregular two-step, constantly tripping over itself, the second liltingly Viennese, and the third a stylized rag by way of Conlon Nancarrow. The fourth is all jump-cuts and sudden tempo changes, including a presto episode which feels almost like a dare. The final variation alternately emerges from and recedes back into the chromatic fog.
Evening Song No. 2 prolongs the autumnal mood, though in place of Adams’s searching chromaticism, Philip Glass immerses us in a warm F major bath. The music’s syntax has a meditative regularity, breathing in for eight beats, then out. The form is symmetrical, too; the most elaborate of the piece’s five sections is nestled at the center of a palindrome. Incidentally, Evening Song No. 2 is an example of a short piece that gave rise to longer works—the Quartet Satz (written for Kronos Quartet) and the much-expanded solo piano version Distant Figure. In each of these re-workings, although additional sections are slipped into the form, it remains palindromic. Taken as a trio, these musical siblings provide a fascinating look at a composer’s working process—and how a simple idea can lead to divergent paths.
At first listen, Laurie Anderson’s Song For Bob seems to be the most enigmatic piece on the album. Short musical modules, separated by lengthy pauses, disappear into near silence. These mottoes share basic similarities, though they’re rarely repeated literally; the rhetorical effect is of somebody trying to express the same idea in slightly different words. The key to the piece may be found in Anderson’s labeling of certain phrases as “echoes”—and in the realization that the pianist’s two hands have been echoing each other the whole time. In live performances, Anderson often achieves this effect with her violin fed through electronic processing, causing the phrase she’s just played to spiral away in a series of transposed delays. The same is true of each of the gnomic modules comprising Song For Bob, but here the pianist must create the illusion acoustically.
As a title, L.A. Pastorale at first seems like an oxymoron—Los Angeles isn’t a place typically associated with shepherds on rocks. Brad Mehldau’s piece nonetheless finds a few minutes of repose, as he writes, “amidst the urban facades, the brash advertisements that promise impossible salvation, and the ceaseless flow of humans.” This secret beauty is mirrored in the way Mehldau arranges his musical voices. An apparent melody, on top, consists of a single repeated tone, willfully flat and steady. But it’s shaped by active harmonies and moving lines just under the surface—a hidden landscape smoothed by asphalt. Eventually, as each phrase becomes more expressive and involved, these undercurrents rise to overtake the monotone as the primary melody. L.A. Pastorale also contains unexpected (and completely coincidental) intersections with some of the other pieces on the album. The harmonic twists and turns, often spurred on by chromatic inner voices, recall the bass line of I Still Play; another phrase, about halfway through, haltingly echoes the Beethoven-derived theme of Wise Words.
For Bob is a true curiosity among Steve Reich’s works: a piece for solo performer without either electronic processing or prerecorded track. As such, it’s also one of the few in which canonic interplay between voices (an animating force in Reich’s music from the beginning) takes a back seat. Everything else about the music is nonetheless remarkably recognizable: the insistent four-against-three rhythmic patterns, the rich, suspension-filled chords, and the common-tone modulations, around which the music pivots in two-bar phrases. The structure, too, is unmistakably Reich, super-compressed. There’s even a tiny “slow movement” in the center which recalls his recent Quartet, and a conclusion which ascends a bright ladder of inversions, much like the final moments of 1985’s Sextet.
Pat Metheny’s 42 Years is a study in subtle but striking contrasts. The piece opens on a series of musical switchbacks, each phrase twisting back as if to cancel itself out. This harmonic ambiguity serves a deliberate purpose—to set, in stark relief, the simple, wistful tune that follows. Performed here with easy, flexible pacing and understated expressivity by Metheny’s sometimes duo partner Brad Mehldau, this is music with that hard-to-pin-down quality of being familiar, yet not—a love song from a long-forgotten musical, perhaps?—which just as quickly slips through our fingers.
Donnacha Dennehy’s Her Wits (About Him) also begins as if it is lost in an existential haze, trying to remember something just beyond reach. The music lurches forward then pulls back, see-sawing between major and minor chords at the very top of the keyboard. Dennehy plays hypnotic games with his materials, rotating patterns of chords and rhythms simultaneously so they end up in minutely varied permutations (he calls the piece “a paean to detail”). About halfway through, we hear the suddenly confident, almost demonically driven counterpart of this opening material: three long sentences which just as swiftly vanish back into the stratosphere (“like a ghost of what’s just been,” as the score indicates). The piece has an emotional compass which belies its five minutes, and in fact, it serves as the structural basis for Dennehy’s Broken Unison, a 20-minute percussion quartet.
And finally, an unexpected encore: Randy Newman’s Recessional. It’s a mock-serious march, the grandness of its gestures undermined by its hilariously diminutive scale. In both size and tone, the piece recalls Schumann’s Wichtige Begebenheit (“An Important Event”) from the Kinderszenen. Yes, it’s worth pausing to commemorate a life’s transitions and achievements, the piece seems to say—but only for a moment. It’s what comes next that really matters.
And after all, Bob Hurwitz has never been one to stand on ceremony. As the Laurie Anderson lyric goes: “This is the time, and this is the record of the time.” That’s what Bob’s work at Nonesuch has always been: to make records of the time, to tell us about our time.
–Timo Andres, February 2020