The impetus for this week’s video, my transcription of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, goes back about a year, and touches on almost every aspect of my musical life. It’s a piece I’ve known for awhile, and I’d turned to it as an example of “modular” form for a couple of my composition students, but in doing so, realized I didn’t fully understand it myself. It’s famously cryptic music, put together from lots of little stylized, angular gestures, which recur and evolve in intricately nested patterns. But the core of it is the last few minutes—a spacious, mournful chorale based around plainspoken minor-7th chords that casts the preceding music in an entirely different light. I think it’s one of the most moving passages in all of Stravinsky—not in a heart-on-the-sleeve way, but more like the feeling of walking from a small room into a vast cathedral.
This music, as it turns out, was composed for an album of short pieces in memory of Debussy contributed by various composers, exactly 100 years ago. Stravinsky expanded and elaborated on it in the first version of Symphonies of Wind Instruments that same year (the word “symphonies” used rather self-conciously in the antique sense, to mean “sounding together”). In discovering this, and playing through those wonderful chords, trying out different voicings, I began to wonder if the rest of the piece would be possible to play on the piano, too. So the transcription began more as a way of studying Stravinsky’s compositional process, trying to figure out how this seemingly unbalanced structure stood up so well.
At the same time, I’d begun writing a piece for flute-viola-harp trio, and Stravinsky’s modular forms began to have an effect on that, too. In my writing, I’m usually quite concerned with the transitions between things—hiding them, blending them, obviating the need for them in various crafty ways—but here was a chance to try something different. The material still develops, moving from thing to thing, it’s just that the seams are exposed, and in fact, become important musical events in themselves.
Over the summer, I started practicing the transcription I’d finished, which had turned out to be quite a thorny nine minutes of music. Stravinsky’s wide chord spacings and unpredictable layerings make for some real pianistic puzzles. At times, this demanded some triage—figuring out which notes to forgo, in which octaves, to retain the greater sense of harmony and orchestration. I thought it would be interesting to see the musical and logistical solutions behind some of these, so I filmed the finished version in the combination “hands-down/score follower” style, which owes a creative debt to Robert Edridge-Waks’s I Still Play videos from this past spring. Between teaching, to writing, to performing, and producing a video recording, Symphonies has been a mainstay of my year, and I can’t think of another 100-year-old I’d have preferred to spend it with.
N.B. if you’re interested in a real Stravinsky scholar’s analysis of the piece, I recommend this Taruskin talk (though the performance in it is a little rough).