Tonight at 10:30 PM EST/7:30 PM PST on YouTube: violinist Rachel Lee Priday and I present a special concert of American music. Sonatas by Chris Cerrone, Charles Ives, and Aaron Copland; Julia Wolfe’s rarely-heard banger Mink Stole; and two solos, Robin Holcomb’s Wherein Lies the Good, and the world premiere of my Three Suns for solo violin, which Rachel commissioned. It’s a good day to celebrate American music, and I hope you can join us.
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).
More Ann Southam on the YouTube channel this week, and more Schubert, at the point they intersect. I’m not sure what Schubert Southam was referring to in her piece Remembering Schubert, if it was anything specific. But one of the things about her piece which intrigues me is that an accompanimental figure stuck in her head, rather than one of those famous tunes; it’s from this Alberti-ish pattern that the piece gently evolves. It’s similar to the one from Schubert’s song Die Taubenpost, which Liszt transcribed as part of the Schwanengesang collection.
The behind-the-scenes work for this video included re-engraving the Southam score from scratch; the score I got from the Canadian Music Centre was so poorly laid out that I found myself completely unable to figure out which notes were supposed to go where (I have no doubt Southam’s handwritten manuscript was clearer). The challenge here is making the rhythmic spacing consistent while retaining the detailed voicings Southam indicated—the moments where accompaniment becomes melody.
Before, L; after, R
I find myself doing this kind of re-engraving of other composers’ music more and more, whether it’s to save space on my screen, make an abbreviated short score or cue sheet, or simply rearrange things in a way that makes more sense to me visually. The process is also helpful for learning the music; one tends to notice different things about a score in the process of transcribing it, particularly the various ways composers use slurs, articulations, and repeating patterns.
This Sunday, August 30th, my new clarinet quintet House Work will premiere on YouTube. I was lucky to be introduced to the Pogossian family in Los Angeles (remotely, of course) by Jay and Helen Schlichting, who suggested I write something for them to learn and record during quarantine, since all of our musical summer plans had been cancelled. The piece that resulted is a pocket theme-and-variations—lots of activity packed into a small space, befitting a family of five. We conducted rehearsals remotely over the past few weeks, then Jay (renaissance man that he is) filmed and recorded it as part of an online concert alongside music by Coleridge-Taylor and Bartók. I’m thrilled with how the piece is sounding in the Pogossian family’s capable hands, and excited to share it with you all come Sunday, August 30 at 10pm EDT / 7pm PDT.
I’ve loved Ann Southam’s Glass Houses ever since I heard pianist Sarah Cahill play one years ago. The music finds an ecstatic joy in severe, repeating structures, a quality it shares with much of my favorite minimalist art (as it turns out, the ‘Glass’ in the title was partly an homage to Philip’s music). One can also hear the influence of East-coast fiddle music in the bright, nimble melodies arranged in strophic phrases. But the trick of the pieces lies in the way they are notated, with independent hands; the left hand repeats an unchanging pattern throughout, while the right cycles through the melodies, which are completely independent metrically, therefore lining up a different way each time. To execute this requires a level of brain division I don’t think I’ve had to do before. I spent days doggedly stumbling through no. 14 before I was able to play even the first couple of patterns without derailing myself.
This week’s video pairing traces its roots back to 2013, when Bruce Levingston asked me to write him a nocturne for piano. I’d coincidentally been “rediscovering” Chopin around that time (in pieces such as Old Friend)—I think most piano students, even tangential ones like me, suffer from overexposure after awhile.
As an adult, I find myself drawn to the subtler, more radical pieces—the Nocturnes and Mazurkas in place of Ballades and Etudes. I’m particularly amazed by how consistently surprising the music is, despite its familiarity and conventional forms. I was particularly taken with the coda of Op. 48 no. 2, a long, slow, chromatic descent into the tonic, which feels tragic in a way that’s out of proportion to the scale of the piece. I wanted that same chromatic underpinning to act as a structure for Heavy Sleep, tugging it downward even as it ranges widely over the keyboard.
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.
Monday was the tenth anniversary of the release of my first album, Shy and Mighty. It’s cliché to say, but it feels simultaneously an age ago and also yesterday. In May 2010, Dave Kaplan & I celebrated the release with a packed and raucous concert at Le Poisson Rouge (then only two years old). The memory of it is all the more wistful as Nonesuch & I prepare to release an album tomorrow, with no such festivites possible.
I decided that the best way to mark Shy and Mighty’s tenth birthday was to give it a makeover of sorts, so as to help it to find its way into other pianists’ hands. With a lot of extra time on my hands—some might say too much—I spent the past couple of months gradually re-engraving the score from scratch, implementing all the corrections, annotations, and performance directions I’ve added to my personal copy over the years. The old score was, after all, the work of a student composer, and though I’d fixed details here and there, it didn’t reflect anything close to my current editorial standards or engraving taste. The end result is a more complete and instructive document, not to mention a more beautiful and easier-to-read one.
Since I’m self-published, I can undertake this work without too much trouble, so I’ve been seizing the moment. It’s all so old at this point that I don’t remember anything about having composed it; it feels merely like music I’ve known for a long time, and that I have a firm idea of how it should go. It is from this certainty that I derive my editorial edicts.
Alongside Shy and Mighty, the solo version of How can I live in your world of ideas?, Sorbet, and Some Connecticut Gospel have all received similar treatment, with more to follow. If you’ve bought PDFs of this music from my website, you should receive an email with a link to download the new materials automatically.
(It should go without saying that all this work was done using Dorico. If you aren’t at least considering switching to Dorico at this point, my only question for you is: how come?)
I’m “playing” a concert today, though it’s more accurate to say I’m “releasing” it, on YouTube. One of the strange things about this concert, which I was supposed to play tonight downstairs at Carnegie Hall—my first solo recital there—was that it began with the idea of a living room, and it’s ended up in one. The original impetus behind it was a set of piano pieces collectively called I Still Play, which were written for former Nonesuch Records president Bob Hurwitz as a retirement gift from 11 Nonesuch artists. Though the pieces were written with the idea that Bob might enjoy practicing them at home, we ended up premiering them at the big BAM opera house, and they’ve gone on to lead active public lives since; they’ll be released on record May 22.
But of course, for the past six weeks, they’ve returned home, where they’re likely to remain for the time being. When I got word that Carnegie Hall would be closed through at least mid-May, I was disappointed but hardly surprised—I’d been dreading the email as I watched cancellations pile up. What do you do when a day you’ve been anticipating, with an odd mixture of fear and joy, nervous excitement, and, I’ll admit, pride, for years—suddenly becomes a regular day? I mean, what do you literally do, in that moment? I can tell you that after sending the news to a few iMessage threads (fishing for sympathy, I suppose) I spent the rest of the evening drinking very good whiskey, and a few days later deleted the event from my calendar and my website. The initial need for sympathy faded quickly, I’m relieved to say. But the disappointment persists.
What I most missed was the chance to share the work I’d already done. I’d devised a varied and interesting program, focusing on some of the American piano literature I love the most. I’d been practicing in earnest since November, had put my writing schedule on hold, had convinced Carnegie to commission a new piece, from the wonderful composer Gabriella Smith (her first for solo piano). I’d gotten my friends at Yamaha to send over my favorite Bösendorfer piano for the night. I’d even gotten a very sharp new suit made, which now feels like an absolutely insane thing to have done. But most of all, it was the practicing that I worried would vanish in a small puff of wasted effort.
Inspired by similar efforts by musician friends like Nadia Sirota, who very quickly developed and produced a thriving streaming show called Living Music, and Cécile McLorin Salvant, whose live-streamed living room shows feel like real occasions, I threw myself into documenting my Carnegie program before it inevitably fell victim to the entropy of No Deadline. If nothing else, it provided a project, something to structure my days around, and a way to follow through on the months of work. My methods were extremely DIY—I was suddenly my own piano tuner, recording engineer, videographer, editor, promoter. I’m not equally good at these things, and some I’m distinctly bad at. You can hear the recording quality get better over the course of the project, as I learned how to better capture my piano’s strengths. The equipment I used was just what I had on hand—my iPhone, a couple of mediocre mics I’ve owned since grad school, some old de-noising software from a long-disbanded torrent site.
I wanted to make it in this slow, methodical way, rather than as a livestream, because it seemed like a chance for the documentation to become part of the process—not only the preparation for a kind of high-wire act that the public never gets to see, but a record of what life has been in confinement. It also afforded me a chance to shift perspectives. Now that audiences are virtual, I could be my own test audience. I was in two places at once, literally—at the piano, but also behind the camera and microphones (I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time watching and listening to myself as I have in the past six weeks).
The music has taken on new depth during that process—I suppose I’ll always think of this as my “quarantine program,” for better or worse. I love it all even more now. Each of the I Still Play pieces is a little conversational gem, distilling an aspect of its author’s voice into a concentrated nugget. Gabriella’s Imaginary Pancake is a knockout, not only a blisteringly virtuosic showpiece but a beautiful, grand, sculptural form—I’m glad for it not to sit indefinitely in un-premiered limbo, and can’t wait to hear other pianists tackle it. Robin Holcomb’s Wherein Lies The Good has quickly become one of my favorite pieces to perform—it encapsulates so many particularly American musical moods, at once familiar and difficult to place. There’s a piece of my own on the program that’s new, at least to my fingers—Old Ground, which has to do with an idea of a specifically American original sin. Recording it has allowed me to get that needed distance away from having written it, so I can begin to see what works and what doesn’t. The two pieces I’ve known the longest are Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues and Copland’s Piano Sonata. Both pieces represent, to me, the best qualities in American music—a directness, almost bluntness, that manages to be at once vernacular and avant-garde. I also find both pieces deeply tragic—the Copland in a rhetorical, elegiac mode, a stark contrast to Rzewski’s angry polemic.
I don’t know yet if a concert works as a YouTube playlist—this is all an experiment. I look forward to being able to share it with you in person. But I’ve loved making these videos for you in the meantime. Making things feels especially satisfying just now, whether it’s a recording or the pork shoulder I’ve got in the oven this afternoon. Between those two things I feel we’ll pull through this.
A quick thanks to Carnegie Hall and Nonesuch Records, for giving me permission and encouragement to do this, to Yamaha Artist Services, and to Gabriella Smith for writing Imaginary Pancake, and to Chris Cerrone for his invaluable recording advice. And as always, to you, for listening.
I’m happy to help trumpet the release of I Still Play, a new album of piano music from Nonesuch coming out May 22nd. It feels like a bright piece of news in a dispiriting time, and perhaps a useful one as well. This is music written to be played—if not under quarantine—then at least in the home, as I explain in the liner note:
The existence of I Still Play as an album is a bit of a paradox. Each of these 11 tributes to [former Nonesuch president] 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.
The pieces were premièred as a set in April 2017; I contributed Wise Words and later recorded seven of them (the other pianists being Jeremy Denk, Brad Mehldau, and Randy Newman). The video above, of Nico Muhly’s Move, was made by Robert Edridge-Waks and filmed a few of weeks ago in my apartment, where I am now of course ensconced indefinitely.
Nine of the pieces were to have formed the core of my Carnegie recital in April, now cancelled, along with everything else. I feel less sad than simply unmoored by these circumstances. Anticipation of the next performance, the next new piece, has always lent structure to my life; with these things suddenly revoked, I feel my productive impulses going into hibernation, as if they’re making preparations for a long-haul flight.
I know I’ll return to work in earnest soon. In the meantime, I’m cocooning, and I’m not too optimistic or naïve to imagine this resulting in any growth—personal, artistic, or otherwise. I live with a doctor, and in a way I’m grateful to be able to simply set everything aside and be the support crew, keeping the house tidy and pantry well-stocked.