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.