N.B. At various times, I've written brief narratives of my piano études for the benefit of Hayes Biggs — writing liner notes for them — and for various students writing dissertations on them. Here's what I said and when I said it. Sorry about the inconsistent formatting. N.B. These are not the actual liner notes, some of which may be found here.
UNMANIFESTO AND NARRATIVE (2002)
UNMANIFESTO AND NARRATIVE (2002)
I am not a pianist and I can’t play these etudes, except for a few of the very easy ones. The collection didn’t start out as a collection, and I wasn’t aware I was writing etudes until Lyn Reyna told me that I was, three years after I’d written the first one. The reason that I had written several short, concentrated (and greatly virtuosic) piano pieces instead of more substantial pieces was that I wasn’t prepared to write a long, monster piano piece like many composers my age were doing in the late 80s (I knew mine would be terrible by comparison, and I didn’t feel I had anything to say). The first etude (E-Machines) was written (in 1988) as a kind of joke piece, to get pianists off my back.
And now there are more than forty of them.
I’ve tried to come up with a pat explanation for why I’ve written so many of them (and want to write even more), but I haven’t come up with anything yet that explains it all. I can say for certain that, at first, writing etudes functioned as a kind of creative recreation – I gave myself a rule that an etude had to be written in six days or less (since E-Machines was written in six days), could not be revised, and could not have any a priori notions of how the whole piece should go (i.e., I couldn’t think about the piece before I started it). The fun part was the seat-of-the-pants approach to composition, which was in opposition to my usual approach to longer instrumental pieces. I suppose I usually do my best when I don’t know what I’m doing, and I like the feeling of exhilaration and frustration at trying to work out things that are new to me, and knowing that any piece can go in just about any direction at any time.
To that end, at least half of the etudes I’ve written have functioned as a sort of compositional respite. When I’m having trouble working through things in longer pieces, I tend to put them aside and write an etude. Writing unrelated pieces that are brief and single-minded helps keep the gears moving and helps me return to the bigger piece with a fresh perspective (and reminds me that I know something about composing). Other etudes have served as little playgrounds, places where I can play games with ways that notes get put together, and where I can sharpen my chops for use in other pieces. Many of them have been written with specific performers in mind, and with suggestions given by the players themselves. And a few have been written because I had great titles that cried out for pieces.
Nonetheless, I think these pieces tend to be a little conservative formally: almost all of them have expository music, developmental music, and a recapitulation of sorts, sometimes with a coda. There tends to be clear voice leading, tension and release, phrases, and lots of accumulations that are released suddenly. The joy of composing, then, I guess, is discovering lots of different ways to make radically different pieces that are all exciting, expressive and interesting, given that they do not vary wildly in form. And little by little, I think I’m learning how to write for the piano. Anyone who has not heard the etudes of Chopin, Liszt, Scriabin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Ligeti or Bolcom might actually think that I can write for the piano.
I would probably still have only three etudes, not called etudes, if it were not for fabulous pianists like Amy who have picked these pieces up and played the caca out of them. More than recreation, and more than inquisitiveness with notes, I guess I continue to write piano etudes because I know that whatever I write will get the doody played out of it.
Brief opening remarks – September, 2003
The etudes as a collection are somewhat eclectic, though that isn’t really the point. I wrote every one, and I endeavored to make each one sound like only I could have written it. On the other hand, many of them have served as quasi-recreational respites from other, longer and “more serious” pieces. But it is clear that writing these pieces has been valuable to my development as a composer and musician; listening to them in sequence you can sense a real loosening up of the style, and especially more resourcefulness with the materials, as time goes by. There is a scowl-faced seriousness to many of the earlier ones that reflects the same scowl-faced seriousness in the music I was writing at the time. By writing the etudes, I seem to have learned how to loosen up and have more joy in the simple act of invention, and also how to write longer spans of music without such frequent formal articulations. The phrases and sections in, say, BAM, Trillage, and Mano a Mano are really rather short, and it makes the pieces feel somewhat overarticulated to me in hindsight; meanwhile, pieces like Sixth Appeal, Pink Tab, and Durchrauscht die Luft feel almost like single long breaths by comparison. Too, I think that I learned in these pieces how to be more careful in varying the harmonic rhythm, in varying the phrase length, and perhaps beginning to understand how to make an analog to a Schenkerian middleground in my music, at least to help me understand where a piece is going as I’m writing it. And of course, before E-Machines I hadn’t a clue how to write fast music.
So the pieces don’t feel eclectic so much as they feel like singular responses to unique compositional problems. Developing some surface figures that I heard in James P. Johnson’s playing is necessarily going to give far different results than developing some surface features from a Liebeslieder waltz, for instance. And I seem to have hoodwinked a large number of listeners – the etudes are essentially atonal, and hardly anyone hears them that way. Neither do I, by the way, but the note-to-note procedures of these pieces and of all my pieces are essentially drawn from Schoenberg – and the middlegrounds, maybe from Renaissance vocal music. Hey, but what do I know?
For several years after graduate school, several pianists had been bugging me to write pieces for them, for whatever reason. Quite a few composers my age and a little older had been making small reputations for themselves with big, Romantic, slurpy, heavy, loud, overdramatic and self-important piano pieces, and that seemed very unattractive to me. I wasn’t ready to write a big piano piece (I probably still am not ready), and I didn’t feel I had anything to say in the form, nor was I all that good at writing for the piano.
In the meantime, I had met Martin Butler, who was a Composition Fellow at Tanglewood with me in 1982, and I talked him into doing grad work at Princeton with me. For a while we were housemates. Martin is an extremely accomplished pianist, and he bought a crappy piano for composing, which was placed next to the front door in our house. Martin himself is a very nervous kind of person, always with a jiggling leg, a cigarette, a drink of coffee, or something to keep his body moving very fast (I think sometimes his leg jiggles fast enough to enter another dimension briefly). He also was able to play repeated notes (such as in Bartok’s Bear Dance) with one hand, rather than with alternating hands, which was the only way I could play them. This got to be a running gag – every time I left the house or came in, Martin would launch into a volley of machine-gun repeated notes. Martin also asked me to write him a piano piece. Which I resisted doing for many years.
In January, 1988, on a lark, I hopped on a plane to Phoenix and rented a small apartment in order to write a piece. I’d never been in a warm climate in January, and thought the new experience would be cool. And it was. So much so that I finished my piece a week ahead of schedule, and had extra time to write a little piece for Martin to get him off my back – and get a tan at the same time. I decided to write a silly piece, probably worthless, that made light of Martin’s perpetual motion and our running gag about repeated notes. And I decided to take manuscript paper to a playground and write it outdoors over six days (it might have been finished in fewer days except that I am pretty fair-skinned). I was also making a few sly references to Martin’s tape piece called Night Machines, so I called my piece Nocturnal E-Machines, a title that is, admittedly, not sly at all. Later, when the piece was published, I dropped the first word (and recycled it for my third étude). Incidentally, Martin eventually performed the piece eleven years after I wrote it.
The year that I taught at Stanford, I hired Lyn Reyna, a local pianist, to premiere E-Machines. It was not until the dress rehearsal the day of the concert that I heard the piece for the first time, that it actually sounded pretty good, and was kind of fun, too. For years I had always gotten comments after performances that my music was a lot more serious than I was – after this performance, one listener said he’d never seen such a perfect fit between a composer’s personality and his piece. So in a way this piece was a kind of watershed moment for me (not to mention, it helped me learn how to write fast music). Incidentally, I fully expected that E-Machines would be unplayable (it is merely awkward). Instead, it is by far my most performed piece, having been performed well more than a hundred times. Don’t ask me why.
It is from the experience with E-Machines that I got my rules for etude-writing: writing left-to-right, no revisions, no a priori notions of how the piece would go, and must be composed within six days. The six-day rule has been violated only by Trillage and Luceole.
E-Machines has a symmetrical structure because Martin liked to write pieces with symmetrical structures in those days. At this time I was still thinking within all-combinatorial hexachords and successive unfoldings of the whole chromatic via those hexachords and their complements. By E-Machines the practice was very loose, but I still thought that way. Accordingly, the harmonic structure also is the formal structure: A-B-C-B-A, with the letters representing both formal divisions and hexachord types. Each hexachord area also is distinct registrally: A is high, B is low, and C is all the registers. Each hexachord area also has a quote that fits in the hexachord: C has the sixth symphony of Beethoven: B has an old winds piece called Flights of Col by Martler (bars 61-62); and A has Für Elise (the hexachord is completed with the D-flat in the cluster that follows the quote). E-Machines is “in” Fsharp.
Karen Harvey, a pianist friend in Boston, was to be sponsored in January, 1992 by the Wang Center for the Performing Arts in a high-profile recital, and she told me she wanted to play E-Machines on that recital. Except that she didn’t want to get guff from the critics for performing short pieces. So she asked if I could add a movement. In July, 1991, at the Bellagio Center in Italy, I wrote this piece, outside (like E-Machines) and in six days. Like the first piece, it has a symmetrical form articulated by register. And in the middle it quotes E-Machines and Mozart’s 40th Symphony, as well. In order to call it an étude, I had to say it was an étude “about” something, and so I said it’s an étude on “swirls of notes.” The title comes from something Karen wrote on the piano part to my violin concerto (in which she played at Tanglewood) over a sforzando chord.
BAM! is my last piece structured around the all-combinatorial hexachords, and since it’s meant to be related to E-Machines, it also has a symmetrical all-combinatorial hexachordal structure. Except this one I don’t remember. Maybe A-B-C-D-C-B-A or something like that.
Lyn Reyna, who had premiered E-Machines wanted to take it and BAM! on the road, and suggested it would make a nice suite if there were a slow piece, too. She also intimated that both the earlier pieces could be classified as études, and the new piece might as well be an étude, too. So I went back to E-Machines and wrote out the sequence of repeated notes and reused that sequence in Nocturnal, this time as slow, dreamy repeated notes; there is also an embedded quote from the Tristan prelude in the second section. Now with a nice suite of pieces that worked together, I was pretty much sure I was done with études.
Also, the opening of the piece returns veiled within the figuration, m. 34. The only relationship it has to E-Machines is the sequence of repeated notes. Note also that the repeated notes in the third structural section are there but not notated with secondary stems – too cumbersome a notation. Like E-Machines, this one is “in” Fsharp.
The pianist Alan Feinberg was putting together a project he called “the virtuoso pianist” and asked if I could contribute a piece to it. Around this time, I also got a tape of Alan playing George Edwards’s piano concerto with the Albany Symphony, and I was very struck by his playing, and by the music, of the written-out cadenza of that piece, particularly a substantial passage with slow notes in the outer voices and trills in the middle parts. As a way of acknowledging his performance and that piece, I decided to write this piece as an etude on trills, all of it variations on this passage from George’s concerto, which is heard in its original form as the beginning of Variation VI. The fun part in writing this piece was in thinking of the various melodies as “spirals” – that is, lines that would contract to two notes, which would speed up until they became a trill. Which is sort of the main gesture of the piece. It took me so long to get around to writing this piece that it was too late for Alan’s project: he played E-Machines instead. The piece was not premiered until five years after I wrote it, during which time it had sold two hundred copies and was favorably reviewed in Piano and Keyboard magazine.
The quoted part of George’s piece trilled around G-Aflat and B-Csharp. Accordingly, the first two trills of the piece, the double trill ending the theme, and the concluding double trill, are exactly those, and the four notes form a sort of tonal fulcrum for the way I was thinking about the piece. Marty Boykan noted that trills in this piece tend to speed up, but not to slow down. Finally, the notes of George’s quote are within an octatonic scale, so the very ending uses all eight notes of that octatonic scale in its harmony. This one is in B-Bflat.
#5 FIGURE EIGHT
Beff gave me this title. In graduate school, octaves were something we were supposed to avoid writing, for reasons that were never clearly explained (except with a joke: it’s the only interval that Princeton composers can actually hear). This piece was my way of putting that rule way into the past, while also having fun thinking about the many different ways I could split up octaves in the hands, etc. Most of the piece is a very fast one- or two-part invention, with some of the hairiest and most difficult stuff I have ever written. My favorite parts are when the two hands move in opposite directions from the middle to the extremes while still being in octaves.
A few brief lines return in augmentation, and the only one I remember is m. 30 returning in m. 53 ff. Allegro peine is supposed to mean “so fast it hurts,” but don’t bring that up. This is my first piece where I began a little obsession with alternating major and minor thirds, still going strong. This piece is “in” B-Bflat.
#6 MANO A MANO
Pianist Lisa Moore was new to New York, and was frequently hired to play student pieces at Columbia when I taught there. At one post-concert reception, she asked me to write her a piece that would take advantage of whatever I thought she did best. When I saw her play the Davidovsky piano Synchronism, I thought the speed (and altitude) of her hands at the two-hand tremolo of the climax looked wild, and so I made her piece an étude specifically on alternating hands in this fashion. The tremolo chord from the Davidovsky piece is occasionally arpeggiated as a tune, in finger pedaling, and is heard verbatim once as a passing chord.
The notes for the “Lisa Moore” motto come from mapping the chromatic scale onto the alphabet. There is also a parallel back story in the piece: the Csharp-Asharp of the right hand and the low D of the left hand of the beginning of bar 4 begins as an intrusion, and gradually through the piece that same gesture becomes part of the piece – hence the unremarkable nature of its appearance (with G added) to end the piece. “Going for the Glory” (m. 54) is a graduate school quote from Beff – what she said to me at a day-long party as I began my fifteenth beer, setting the record. I was still able to stand.
#7 LES ARBRES EMBUÉS
Martin Butler suggested to me that he’d like to play an étude by me “like Debussy, with a simple melody floating over thick chords.” I wrote this piece at the MacDowell Colony, trying to evoke a hazy, dreamy sort of world. I got the title when I walked to breakfast one morning when the sun was shining brightly after we had had a hard overnight rain, and several of the trees were literally steaming because of the heat of the sun. The title means “steaming trees” in French. Martin hasn’t played this piece, by the way.
When I mapped Martin’s name onto the chromatic scale, I actually got the pitch for the “B” of Butler wrong (it should be Dflat). To make up for that, and to make my piece correct, I asked Martin if he wouldn’t mind changing his last name to Cutler or Outler. He declined the invitation. “Corinne” is his live-in girlfriend of the last 14 years or so, hence the dance of their two themes in the middle of the piece. Marilyn calls the notation of bars 29-31 a “mind fuck.” This one is “in” C.
#8 CLOSE ENOUGH FOR JAZZ
Another one of the Princeton composer taboos was ostinatos, hence an étude on an ostinato. Alas, the ostinato actually changes every once in a while, though its rhythm is always identifiable, and the sequence of intervals stays the same. This was written specifically for pianist and composer Sandra Sprecher to premiere at the American Academy in Rome; as such, I endeavored to make the harmonic language of this piece close to Sandra’s music, which at the time sounded a lot like free jazz from the 1950s to me. Hence the title. The rockout in the middle of this piece is very hairy with its extra and missing sixteenths, and hand crossings.
I am thinking that the ostinato theme of the piece may have been modeled on Ligeti’s Hungarian Rock, which I had heard only once – in a Music HUM class that I was observing. But I don’t remember specifically. When the ostinato changes, it does retain recognizable aspects, especially the rhythm – often, the notes change but the intervals remain the same, as in 18 and 19. This one is “in” A.
#9 POLLICI E MIGNOLI, OR, THE VIRUS THAT ATE NEW YORK
I wrote this one in Rome, too, and also with Sandra Sprecher in mind, to give her an additional option when she played in Rome. The idea of thumbs and pinkies came from a conversation with a pianist who mentioned bizarre technical studies he had once learned that isolated just one or two fingers of each hand. The “virus that ate New York” is a fast triplet figure that encroaches into the staccato texture and eventually takes over. The triplet figure was actually a parody of a thematic lick in a piece that Sandra had written for Beff and herself, for bass clarinet and piano, which I liked a lot. Oddly, this piece has been played by several pianists in England, but never in America. Until now.
I was trying to suggest A major-minor, thus giving me an opportunity, for the first time in my music, to use a pedal in the bass as a way of creating musical tension. Not to mention, making extremely clear formal references. The piece is “in” A, which is undermined by the virus at the end.
In my year in Rome, I had a dream one morning of piano music with a lot of running figures that constantly descended to the bottom of the piano. The music was beautiful, but all I was able to capture was the texture, which I couched in an étude on left-hand running notes, accompanying a long-line melody that starts and ends on A. The title refers, of course, to the dance form, but also in Italian to electricity (current). It’s also the word used in Italian newspapers that refers in weather reports to the jet stream. I was thinking of all of them.
Obviously, this one is “in” A, which marks all of the formal articulations.
ÉTUDES BOOK II
#11 Touch Typing.
This one was written at the American Academy in Rome in the late spring, and taking seriously the premise (it must be played with index fingers only) was the first sure sign that I was ready to go home (someone had told me that Liszt had written some piano pieces with similarly wacky premises, so it seemed okay). The idea came when I was sitting at a laptop computer with David Rutherford, a scholar with a Rome Prize, trying to get his e-mail program to work. He typed with only his index fingers, but very fast, and I mentioned how fast he was typing despite using only two fingers. He smiled and remarked, “so do you think I could be a piano player (pronounced pie-anny player)?” The “theme” of the piece is asdfgh (where the left hand rests to touch-type on a qwerty typewriter keyboard), or A-A-flat,D,F,G,B, and that figure gets used in the opening gesture, and several other times in the piece as melody or bass line. It has an obvious three-part structure, fast-slow-fast.
Soon after I started teaching at Brandeis, Lyn Reyna — who had premiered E-Machines (#1) and Nocturnal (#3) — called me and asked if I could write a right-hand piece as a gift to her friend Barbara Barclay, who had fallen off a ladder and injured her left hand. I wrote it in my office over a weekend. It’s a slow, dreamy piece based around F-sharp and A, with a slow descent to the lowest A on the piano over a melody that stays close to the register where it begins.
#13a Plucking A.
One of several etudes I simply had to write once I had thought of a title for it. Marilyn Nonken was going to perform and record some études, and we didn’t know yet which ones. I asked her husband Jay what sort of étude I might think of writing for her, and he said, “why not something inside the piano? She hates doing that.” So that is how this etude came to be. It works well on lots of smaller pianos, but not on a Steinway D, because of the different configurations of crossbars, etc.; in January 2002 I did an “arrangement”, étude #13a, for this recording. I was thinking a (very) slow blues when I was writing the piece, but it doesn’t sound bluesy at all. Instead, I like the interaction of all the stopped, plucked, and harmonic timbres.
I was at the VCCA with my wife Beth and had finished what I came there to write, and there was still a week left in our residency. So I simply started writing a piece loosely based on the rhythmic opening of Martin Butler’s “Jazz Machines” (fast parallel fifths in the low register) — which both Beth and I had been listening to during our lunch hours at VCCA. After writing about 15 or 20 bars of music, I realized that I was writing a piece about hand crossings. And in fact, it became the mother of all hand crossing pieces. The hand-crossing becomes progressively more and more difficult until just before a recapitulation, when the left hand plays in the middle register and the right crosses over to the bottom of the piano. The piece is really as much about the choreography of the hands as it is about the notes; the piece looks at least as good as it sounds.
#15 The Third, Man.
When it became clear that this collection of etudes was getting pretty serious, I decided to put a little organization into the collection, and resolved to write a bunch of them on intervals, as in the first book of Debussy etudes. I started by writing an etude on thirds, since I liked this title. This is one of the few slow, dreamy ones. It’s just one-part, then two-part, then three-part counterpoint, all in thirds (both major and minor), and a little near-quote from “Claire de Lune” at the end to close it off. The recapitulation in this piece coincides with the completion of the bass’s descent to its low note, C.
#16 Ice Boogie.
Was written for Steven Weigt, who planned a recital in May, 1998 and had resolved to perform a whole mess of etudes. This one is based entirely on melodic octaves, in all sorts of rhythmic relationships to each other, within a steady stream of eighth notes. It culminates in a gonzo boogie woogie from hell at the climax. Most of the piece was written in the cold or by candlelight, during the Ice Storm of the Century, which hit Maine as I started it. The title is a nod to that storm.
#17 Keine Kaskadenjagd Mehr.
In June, 1998 I woke up on a particularly steamy and warm morning with the sound image of descending high register piano, and decided that this was a template for an etude on descending thirds and fourths. The “waterfalls” of the opening brought to mind the TLC song, and the title is a German version of “No more chasing waterfalls.” This etude strangely caught a virus — octaves first infect the texture of running descending lines about halfway into the piece, and then slowly take it over, until they get blown away just before the recapitulation.
#18 Pitching From the Stretch.
I wrote this at the MacDowell Colony shortly after a bunch of us did a field trip to Fenway Park to see Pedro Martinez beat his old team, the Expos, 15-0. The “stretch” represents the hand position to play the tenths in the piece, and there is nothing but them. It’s slow and unfolds under a right hand rhythm of all quarters, giving the melody (such as it is) to the left hand. The opening sonority is a C dominant 7th chocrd.
#19 Secondary Dominance.
This is a fun and very hard piece that starts off as an obnoxious nose-thumbing at composers who use nothing but the octatonic scale. It’s built over constantly shifting alternating patterns on seconds in mostly the middle register. This one is painfully difficult because the main figures come from alternating or repeated notes a second apart, combined in non-patterned ways. I like that the ending gesture is a non sequitur, which just seemed right.
#20 Fourth of Habit.
This is the last of six consecutive etudes built on intervals, and was written for Geoffrey Burleson, who specifically requested the fourth. Geoff is a great jazz improviser as well as a champion of new music (including plenty of my etudes), so the swing eighths that the piece is built on recognize Geoff’s background in jazz. It’s built on perfect fourths both in harmonic piles and in lines, and several people independently have told me the piece sounds “like McCoy Tyner on speed.” This one occasionally sticks in a figure from the bridge of “Hot Pants,” which I had danced to several times at the MacDowell Colony.
ÉTUDES BOOK III
#21 Twelve-Step Program.
After going a year without writing any piano etudes, and with a semester leave coming up, I decided to challenge myself to write a whole book of ten etudes in one year, along with the other pieces I had to write. I started with Twelve-Step Program (which had the working title “Wedgie”). Earl Kim had recently died, and I was a great admirer of his music; I remembered in particular one very striking vocal chromatic “wedge” from an extended vocal cadenza in Kim’s “Exercises en Route” and wondered if I could write a whole piece based around such chromatic wedges. This fiercely difficult piece was what came out. It starts with jerky-rhythmed wedges counterpointed against other jerky-rhythmed wedges, and a gradual descent, followed by registrally stratified wedges, all of it eventually smoothed out in a second large section around running sixteenths accompanying very slow wedges. I particularly like the way this ending evaporates just before the piece might have recapitulated.
One of the most famous stories of Haydn and Mozart (or Mozart and Haydn, or Haydn and Beethoven, depending on who tells the story) is Mozart showing Haydn a piano sonata that ends on five-octave Cs, Haydn asking how that can be played, and Mozart demonstrating by playing the middle one with his nose. I also use my nose to demonstrate pedal point in the middle voice when I teach tonal harmony: I play the bass and melody of the K. 331 sonata with my hands, and the tenor voice (repeated Es) with my nose. It usually gets the point across. I thought if a piece was going to be so egregiously silly as to call for nose-playing, it should be serious instead of wink-wink funny, and Schnozzage is what happened. It’s in a sort of solo-tutti-solo-tutti-solo form, with the “tuttis” developing the nose melody contrapuntally. And a lot of people have said this is the prettiest of the etudes. Not me, though.
#23 You Dirty Rag.
The idea for this began simply as an exercise in which complicated figures in the left-hand would supply the backdrop for an etude in which the left thumb often had the melody – thinking of Liszt etudes in this case. I copped an upbeat beginning figure from Hayes Biggs’s Tagrango to get me going, and this developed, sort of beyond my control, into ragtime-like figures. As such, it also developed into an etude in which the speed of the two hands is quite different: slow ragtime in the left hand and extremely fast, double-time ragtime figures in the right, zipping over the entire range of the piano. I was also thinking, metaphorically, of dance parties at Tanglewood where Ross Bauer and I would do our regular white-guy lower-lip-biting dancing with Martin Butler double-timing and zipping around us, with periods of silence while he took a puff of a cigarette.
#24 Horned In.
The title is a pun on the name of David Horne, for whom it was written. This one was fun and strange to write, as I restricted the piece only to horn fifths, beginning one contrapuntal layer (on C) and eventually expanding to four layers (I thought it was like what painting with jell-o must be like). The harmony of the beginning reminds me of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, which I tried to avoid, but didn’t. The ending returns to the beginning horn fifths in C, backward, as if nothing had happened.
#25 Fists of Fury.
This one started as a not-too-private joke for Marilyn Nonken. She had played an extremely challenging solo concert including premieres of pieces by Jeff Nichols and Milton Babbitt, and included my first two etudes to open the concert. Miller Theater, the presenter, decided to call the concert “Fists of Fury,” a pretty silly name – and that name was slammed in the New York Times review. As a consolation, I decided to write Marilyn a piece with that title that actually does call for fists about a quarter of the time – little black-note and white-note clusters, obviously. It starts and ends fast, loud and furious, collapsing in the middle to the low register and an extended quote from BAM!, my second etude. Near the beginning and end are also sequences of longer notes that have to be “finger-pedaled,” that make the piece even harder: a pedal on D near the beginning (finally “resolving” to C), and a quote (in E-flat instead of D) from the beginning of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth (which I once had to play on trombone).
N.B. #26-#30 were written at VCCA in January, 2000 in two weeks. As if that mattered.
#26 Once Bitten.
This is an etude on mordents precipitated by a composition lesson in which I was telling a student that she was using so many mordent figures that she was practically writing a mordent etude. She responded that I was the etude guy, and that that was my job. So, here it is. It was the first piece I wrote during a semester leave, and I was dazed and confused during its whole composition, but it has ended up being my favorite, Amy’s favorite, and the favorite of several other listeners. I started knowing I would do two things: begin on a mordent on A, like the beginning of the Bach D minor Toccata; and include a passage where the same mordent shifted its relative position within a succession of chords so that different finger combinations would be required. The rest I made up. Here the recapitulation happens over a repeated first inversion E-flat major triad, and is followed by some impressionisting falling scales in thirds, some of my favorite music in all the etudes.
For a long time I thought about trying to write separate white-note and black-note musics that could be played separately or together, and Halftone was my attempt at doing such a strange thing. It was very hard to write black-note and white-note music that didn’t resort to cliches that come from so many such pieces, and harder still to make them work together. I solved the problem with formal trickery: there is white-note music that starts high and fast that descends and gets slower and black-note music that starts low and slow and gets higher and faster. I thought the most dramatic part of the piece would be when both musics are played together and they cross each other in register. The black-note music may follow or precede the white-note music (in the recording it is white-note music first), and the piece ends with both musics played together.
#28 You’ve Got Scale.
I wrote this one at the suggestion of Teresa McCollough, who had recorded etudes #2, #3, and #8, and who really liked wailing on “BAM!”, #2. So this one is like BAM!, with relentless fast running sixteenth notes that descend gradually from the bottom register at the outset. Plain old running scales and arpeggios slowly mutate into chords that build up out of the perpetual motion, after which the piece goes back to the bottom register where it belongs.
#29 Roll Your Own.
Composer Jason Eckardt sent me half a dozen ideas for piano etudes, including one for rolled chords. Since he suggested it would be called “Roll Your Own,” I simply had to write it to have that title, and I dedicated the piece to him. In this piece is a relentless sequence of rolled chords in half notes (at half note M.M. 22-28) accompanying a melody that is restricted to the middle register. The rolled chords get wider and wider until the rolled chord becomes all eight C’s on the piano, which is heard nearly a dozen times. A quick contraction in register to the opening rolled chords ends the piece.
#30 A Gliss is Just a Gliss.
I loved the white-note glissandos in Martin Butler’s piano piece “On the Rocks,” and thought I might be able to steal them for an etude on glissandi, but it turned out there was no way I could write a glissando that was anywhere near as subtle as in that piece. Instead, I went all out and wrote a raucous sort of atonal honky-tonk that shifts from register to register in the coarsest and crassest way possible, with glissandi.
In 1998, my colleague Marty Boykan wrote a collection of five little piano pieces that he called Usurpations. In that piece, he took various licks from pieces by his friends and colleagues, and used them as the basis of piano miniatures. I was one of the composers so usurped, with a chord from my song Psalm of the Wind-Dweller becoming the basis of a very pretty piece. When Perspectives of New Music asked if I would contribute an article or a piece for a festschrift for Marty’s 70th birthday, I knew it was time to return the usurpation. Everyone who knows Marty’s music knows that it is filled with slow trills, and for my usurpation, I took two passages from Marty’s second piano sonata, quoted them literally, and developed the persistent slow trills from those passages as I saw fit. The harmonic and gestural language of the piece sounds closer to Marty’s music than to my own, which just goes to show what a strong musical personality he has.
Marty’s original slow trill is around D, so my piece is “in” D for that reason. As a joke, the middle section’s slow trill is around A, the dominant, also locking right in with Marty’s slow trill on A in the second quote. The 23rd piano concerto of Mozart, slow movement, is quoted at the very end because we both love that piece more than most.
#32 BOOGIE NINTHS
Was part of the effort to write etudes on all the possible intervals. This one is a swingy etude, and is really, really hard. The denizens of beer night contributed the title. The harmonic language is different from most of the etudes, though there are several jazz chords built with shifting notes inside of pedal major ninths.
None, except that I was obviously thinking of Stravinsky a lot, and a little bit of Ice Boogie.
#33 SLIDING SCALES
Is a gonzo etude on scales. Any serious etude composer (normally a conflict in terms) has to have an etude on scales, and this is a gonzo one that takes the usual scale study and rips and twists it into all sorts of bizarre shapes until it becomes largely a kind of funny parody of scale studies. Scales always move very fast, but they also sometimes move at different speeds simultaneously, sometimes slowly but within wide-ranging octave passages, and sometimes as part of a passage with repeated notes embedded. This one must hurt a lot to play.
This one is quite obviously “in” E. If there other ways to unfold scales, I didn’t find them when I wrote this piece.
#34 CHORALE FANTASY
A pun on Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy. A little melody, first heard unadorned, comes back harmonized, as middle voices in retrograde, inversion, and retrograde inversion, and sometimes in combinations of two forms. I wrote this one as a slow chorale so that I could have at least one etude in each book that I could sort of play.
Luceole was the first etude I wrote specifically for Amy, and is the only etude on this CD that took longer than four days to write. I got some unexpected academic year composing time when a trip I was to take was cancelled due to weather, and I remember thinking about the texture of Keine Kaskadenjagd Mehr (#17) with smaller intervals going up instead of down, and in jerky rhythms. So I ran with those figures for a while, thinking I was possibly writing little puffs of smoke going up and evaporating. After a couple of days of work, I had to put the piece down for about three months, after which I returned to it while at the MacDowell Colony and not having much success writing a horn concerto. While walking to my studio one evening I passed a field full of fireflies, and remembered a much denser field of fireflies in Rome just below my studio there; perhaps I wasn’t writing musical puffs of smoke, but musical fireflies. Once I had that image in mind, I knew that the piece should ultimately end high with shimmering tremolos, the coarsest musical analog I could think of to that field of fireflies. “Luceole” is the Italian word for fireflies.
When I asked Amy for ideas for piano etudes for her, she suggested an etude on her favorite chord: the right hand position of a sharp-9 chord, for instance E-B-flat-E-flat, reading up. Since this is essentially the chord that starts “Purple Haze,” I called this piece “Purple” and riffed on this chord in as many ways as I could think. This is the only etude with metric modulations in it, having a middle section in the tempo of triplets to the sixteenth notes of the outer sections. The middle section also quotes “Fourth of Habit,” one of the first etudes that Amy had played. Amy is also a part-time jazz pianist, and I was impressed that she could play the changes to the break in “Night in Tunisia” the first time I met her. As a nod to that, I hid a brief quote from that tune in the piece. It, too, was written at the MacDowell Colony instead of a horn concerto.
#37 TAKING THE FIFTHS
I got this title from my wife after one of our many brainstorming sessions for clever etude titles. Perfect fifths were not specifically taboo for us in graduate school, but using lots of them was obviously shunned because of the strong tonal associations, plus the fact that lots of fifths had become kind of an “American” cliche. This one is fast-slow-fast, based around a neighbor figure (stated in parallel fifths, of course) that bears some similarity to the opening vocal line in Stravinsky’s Renard. I also tried to get in a great chord that I love from an Ives song (F#-C#-G# in the left hand, A-E-B in the right, I think the song is called Tom Sails Away), but I only managed to get the left hand portion in, accompanying a C major triad in the left hand.
The first inversion D major triad is the referential sonority for this one, and the alternating fifths motive that guides this piece probably came from the first sung music of Stravinsky’s Renard.
#38 SILENT BUT DEADLY
This title came from Amy Dissanayake after I told her I was thinking of writing an etude of loud music that has to be played softly. She also mentioned that it had the same initials as her husband Shehan, and the etude is dedicated to him. I don’t remember much about this piece, except that it was really hard to write, and has a funny thing in it around a D major triad with G# added.
This one is hard to like, but I like it more the more I hear it. The form comes from very subtle harmonic alternations between the opening and the D majorish sonority of bar 4. I think if it had a wide range of dynamics it would be just another slushy romantic atonal piece.
#39 SIXTH APPEAL
The flowing passage of the beginning, all in sixths, was a figure that had been in the back of my head for a long time, and I was glad finally to get to put it in a piece. It seems to me that the prettiness and sadness of this piece comes from the rather quick and unpredictable alternation of an apparent minor mode together with notes that don’t belong. I was, of course, thinking of Brahms when writing parallel sixths – who wouldn’t? – and I was originally thinking of the flowing stuff in sixths turning into an accompaniment to a melody in sixths that would emerge from the texture. But I ended up with a better idea: the melody, such as it is, is always stuck on just two notes, C# and A# (a sixth apart), never developing, just fading in and out at various intervals and in various registers. An audience (and performer) favorite seems to be when that sixth is heard in the bottom register of the piano.
Just like late Brahms has to cadence in every register for a true completion, I had to use the motive in every register. The recap is also concurrent with the motive’s appearance in the lowest register. And this one is an audience favorite, and my favorite from Book IV.
For at least a year, Amy Dissanayake had strongly suggested I write a stride piano etude for her to play. I only had a vague notion of what stride piano was, and I was a little wary about extending the idea of writing an etude from a technical problem to a style imitation. Nonetheless, I savored the challenge of jumping into an unfamiliar style and trying to make it my own. To figure out just what stride piano is, I found stridepiano.com on the web, which is almost drooly in its veneration of James P. Johnson (who also wrote the Charleston) and Fats Waller, so I got CDs of both of them playing. What I found out is that stride is like ragtime (oompah in the left hand, sort of, with fast stuff in the right hand), except that it swings, and the bass line is a little more melodic than ragtime. The James P. Johnson tune that gave me the most to chew on was one called Jingles, recorded in the 1920s. This piece is structured a little like a traditional ragtime or march, having two repeated sections followed by a trio, which is also repeated, and a substantial coda.
Much functional harmony is suggested without being acted upon, especially the dominant seventh upbeat to the Trio, and the quasi V-I cadence in Bflat of the ending.
#41 BOP IT
I told you style imitation for an etude was dangerous. When Geoffrey Burleson found out that I was writing a stride étude (by virtue of the fact that I sent him a copy), he asked me to write him a “piano bop” etude. For ideas, he sent me recordings of Bud Powell, Chick Corea, and himself improvising bop. Basically, piano bop is described as stabbing left-hand chords and amazingly technical stuff in the right hand that is too fast to swing. This piece is in two parts, both of them starting with a “head” – a syncopated chorale, if you will – followed by passages that riff over the harmony chorale in a bop way. The second head ends with a near-quote from Coltrane’s Giant Steps.
This one is “in” A, and for the first time I was conscious of trying to write an imitative contrapuntal passage as the way to lead to a recapitulation. The ending notes remember E-Machines, BAM!, and Fists of Fury. Only different.
#42 MADAM I’M ADAM
This is another of many ideas that had rattled around in the closet of my head for a while that I used this etude to flesh out – trying to make a piece using only phrases that were palindromes (the same notes forwards and backwards). The opening pair of phrases had lingered for some time in my mind. The piece itself is a big palindrome (the middle of it is very evident), and contains within it plenty of overlapping palindromes. The second half adds other simple palindromes on top of the larger palindrome of the whole piece, because that’s just what I do.
#43 WIGGLE ROOM
This one was Amy’s idea – an etude on fast notes moving more or less in parallel modeled on the texture of the C minor prelude from the first book of the Well-Tempered Klavier. Here I just kept the notes going fast and the gestures continually changing in relation to each other. Since it’s based on a Bach piece, then the dynamics, articulations and pedalings are left up to the performer.
There are recapitulative episodes galore – m. 36, 60, and 68 to be exact, just as one often gets in Bach’s texture pieces.
Simply a bitonal etude that is shaped like a fantasia – i.e. anything goes, at any time. I don’t use triads a lot in my longer pieces, so I liked the challenge of using only triads. The passages of arpeggiated triads are consciously hyperextended versions of the rising triad figures in Appalachian Spring. When I’m listening to it, at bar 51 I always think or say, “meanwhile, in Brazil…”
#45 PINK TAB
This is an etude on phrases that speed up and slow down, rather obviously modeled on the music for the Countess Geschwitz in Berg’s opera Lulu, for whom speeding up and slowing down is a leitmotif. The accelerando-ritenuto phrases are of differing lengths and speeds, and sometimes overlap into as many as four parts. So this one was a big technical challenge compositionally. The title Pink Tab is actually nonsense. More than fifteen years ago, when my friend Ross Bauer was writing a large ensemble piece, I dreamed about its premiere, at which it was entitled Pink Tab. Ross thought that was so funny that he told his editor (Bruce) he was submitting a piece called that, and the editor was unamused. Therefore, I used it instead. Some people have inferred a drug reference from the title, which would be incorrect. Though both dream and drug begin with “dr”, my initials. Whoa.
#46 DURCHRAUSCHT DIE LUFT
With #46 and #47 I finally screwed in the courage to finish with all the intervals – I had written etudes on every interval except sevenths and tritones, and here is where I started that. To make sevenths prettier than the usual mod-music clichés, I imagined them accompanying a bird in flight, which reminded me of the 13th Liebeslieder Waltz of Brahms, which is about a bird darting through the air (the title means darting through the air). I tried to keep it as light as possible, beginning and ending at the top of the piano.
This one is in A-Gsharp, sort of. The L.H. parallel sevenths of 50-51 and 54-end were a good idea.
#47 FRA DIABOLIS
There is no more overused and clichéed interval for mod music than the tritone, and I was unable to resist the impulse to begin and end only with naked tritones. In the middle, though, that same sequence of tritones heard at the opening keeps coming back embedded within more complex chords with other intervals. A recurring character is the lowest two B’s on the piano together with the highest two F’s that always interrupt (like someone blurting out “STOP!” at a party or in a rehearsal), until at the end the tritone resolves outward by half step. It could have resolved inward, but that would be a different piece.
Accordingly, the piece is “in” B-F, which is unfolded in several registers at the end – making it a very long coda, I think. In this piece there are a lot of instances where it is supposed to feel as if the opening is trying to return, always frustrated, until the coda.
#48 WHAT HALF-DIMINISHES ONE (half-diminishes all)
Martin Butler had played me a piano chorale of his over the phone, and this chorale used nothing but major seventh chords in various inversions. I wanted to write one of those chorales on only one kind of chord, and I chose the late 19th century’s favorite chord, the half-diminished seventh chord. There are nothing but half-diminished seventh chords in this very slow piece, except for a few passing tones, suspensions, and arpeggiations. Writing a piano chorale brought to mind Schumann’s Der Dichter Spricht from the Album for the Young, so the opening melody of my piece uses the same three notes as Schumann. The piece is dedicated to my colleague Eric Chafe, who has an office with a clunky piano next to mine, who teaches a graduate course in late Romantic music, and who has a nasty habit of meeting with students in his office to demonstrate all the resolutions of half-diminished seventh chords found in Wagner operas and Wolf songs. I’m not sure, but I think the first phrase in the low register may inadverently quote something in Schönberg’s Gurrelieder.
Gsharp half diminished is the referential sonority for the piece, as is readily apparent.
A finger pedaling etude. Bach is full of finger pedaling – when a long line is sustained without the use of pedal, around staccato and detailed figuration. This one was really hard to write. It’s got a long line surrounded by jumpy, jittery atonal figuration and a surprise chorale in the middle that emerges as the contrapuntal lines slow down. The title means jumps in hand, a pun on the famous Italian dish saltimbocca, which means jumps in your mouth.
Amy played this on a Berio tribute concert in Chicago (I represented “former student of Berio”) along with the piano sequenza, and only then did I recognize a gestural similarity with Berio.
#50 NO STRANGER TO OUR PLANET
Once Hayes Biggs had written in the liner notes for Amy Dissanayake’s first disc of etudes that every etude of mine ending in zero used “swing eighths,” I was bound to writing this one in swing eighths. The idea here is of short ideas that get interrupted by the hands shifting registers to other ideas frequently – a register shifting etude. Amy says this one is actually very cool. The fun for me in this one was occasionally thwarting the swing eighths by interpolating sixteenth note runs that would temporarily destroy the pulse. At the end, since it ends Book V, the tritone of Fra Diabolis returns, this time resolving inward. The title is an old, old running gag I have had with friends – some of the moves in this piece seemed like they came from another planet, so I used the old running gag for the title.
Here the swing eighths are occasionally undermined by other rhythmic divisions – a rhythmic idea I wish to pursue more fully in future pieces. The undermining of the rhythm in this fashion together with a registral descent and diminuendo in mm. 47-48 are supposed to be funny – and to remind one of the way Milton Babbitt talks to the very end of his breaths, often ending sentences in a muttering way.
#51 ZIPPER TANGO
This is a tango, loosely speaking, that is also an étude on grace notes, written for Amy’s tango project. The more sultry tangos I heard on my CDs of tangos often had a double grace note figure lending special heaviness to the bass, and this tango uses that a lot; Rick Moody said that on the MIDI realization of the piece, those notes sounded like zippers, hence the name. In listening to about three dozen tangos, I got a sense that there was a slow, sultry tango, and a faster, more headlong march-like tango. I used both of them in this piece: the slow, sultry one in the outer sections, and the fast one in the middle, which I get in and out of via metric modulations.
#52 MOODY’S BLUES
This one came about as a suggestion, practically a challenge, from the writer Rick Moody. He had been watching a camcorder movie of Amy playing Strident, and brought in Derrida (a quote about mixing genres), and said it was a very interesting mix of real stride and Davy’s own brand of modernism. Probably because of Amy’s strong pianism, and how outrageously well she brought off the glissando étude in her New York concert, he mentioned that a Jerry Lee Lewis type of étude would be something that would be well-suited for Amy, and she would bring it off marvelously. He then brought in Derrida again. The suggestion was so outrageous that I couldn’t resist trying it, and naturally it came about via an étude in right hand repeated chords. I thought of it as a typical modernist piece that slowly discovers that there is old-time rock and roll imminent in the gestures, and the opening chord – sort of the modernist tonic chord, if you will – eventually gets changed, by changing one note, into the chord that Jerry Lee Lewis would pound at if his blues were in C. I knew Aaron Kernis has also written a Jerry Lee Lewis piece (Superstar Etude #1), but I hadn’t heard it. Any similarities are accidental, or to be expected given the premise. The music from m. 77 to m. 86 is a faux blues progression, either by accident or on purpose.
#53 CELL DIVISION
I was listening to recordings of the New England String Ensemble in preparation for writing a large piece for them, and didn’t feel I had enough ideas to start working on the piece just yet. When I turned on my cell phone and it played its customary rising arpeggios on C major 7, I figured that was a ripe figure for an étude. Because the notes on the cell phone are so high, I kept the entire étude in the top half of the piano – the lowest note being the G below middle C. The piece begins with the turning-on sound, the make call sound (3 notes), and ends with the turning-off sound (the same arpeggios going down) and the end call sound (the make call sound backwards). The gestures are then chromatically transformed in the usual way, and overlapped. A few passages in broken octaves together spell the opening chord, in the original order.
#54 PEDAL TO THE METAL
After I finished my string symphony at Yaddo, I still had four weeks left in my residency, a time which I used to write six etudes. This one, and its title, were suggested by the writer Rick Moody – a piece in which all three pedals are used a lot, and specifically. Rick also said the piece should quote the 39 Lashes music of Jesus Christ Superstar, which is does, three times. It has a two-part structure, with the first dominated by the soft pedal and the second by the sostenuto pedal.
#55 EIGHT MISBEHAVIN’
…is a wedding present to Rick Moody and Amy Osborn. It was composed on the day of their wedding, and was designed to be simple enough for Amy to perform (and for me). The opening comes from the slow movement of the E-flat major clarinet sonata of Brahms (Op. 120 Nr. 1), and the rhetoric of the whole piece from that opening gesture.
#56 CRAZY EIGHTS
I wrote the piece because I liked the title. The premise is that it is all octaves, and each hand restricted to only the black keys or white keys – and it’s crazy-ass fast. To begin, the right hand has white keys and the left has black keys, and the hand distributions shift at the climax of the piece. The recapitulation is the same shape, rhythm and register as the opening, except with the hand assignments reversed. In performance it sounds a little like a conversation between two crazy people (high register, low register) that gets a little heated, and one of them mumbles and walks away.
#57 CHORD SHARK
One of two I wrote for Corey Hamm for a competition. This was his suggestion, a “cool chord” etude “like the C minor prelude of Chopin”. I based mine on the Op. 116 #6 of Brahms, using some of those funny dissonant chords as building blocks for my piece. One of the challenges was to reuse the opening chord as a cadential chord, and as a middle-of-phrase chord. Hard to do in this crazy chromatic context.
#58 WOUND TIGHT
Is the fast version of a “cool chord” etude, also for Corey Hamm. For most of the piece, very quickly moving chords rule, with the hands moving in absolute rhythmic unison, occasionally stopped by a brief slow chord passage. It could possibly sound like constipated be-bop. It also sounds like an animated conversation between two crazy people who stop listening to each other and scream a little bit.
This one is for Amy Dissanayake, based on her suggestion for a staccato-legato etude – something legato surrounded by staccato figuration. First the tune is in triple octaves, with the top voice legato and the bottom staccato; then the bass becomes more like a bass line. The staccato figuration at first made me think of a seasick samba, but I got over it. Eventually, a figure in 32nd notes first heard in bar 14 takes over, and the piece becomes more of a whirling dervish kind of thing. I got bitten by a tick while writing this piece, so Geoff Burleson suggested the title be a variation on a Tarantella – instead of a dance caused by a tarantula bite, this would be a dance caused by a tick bite. “Zecca” is the Italian word for tick.
#60 ACCENTS OF MALICE
This being an etude whose number ends in zero, it was incumbent upon me yet again to write one using swing eighths. But I also wanted it to be the last one where that was the rule, so after the swingy rhythm is set up and acted on, some of the bars blast right through the perceived pulse until towards the end there is neither pulse nor swing – this happened a bit in No Stranger to Our Planet, but is more fully developed here; indeed, those fast notes breaking through the swing feel like they’re trying to escape a rigid rhythmic structure, and eventually they do. As an “accent” etude, this one usually puts them on the weak part of the swing rhythm, and should be played as any good jazzer would play them, and then the accents get put in some pretty hard places once the swing eighths have gone away. This was written while I had a particularly intense summer cold, so some of the sudden flurries of accents represent the coughing jags I was getting.
Composer talk The beginning music returns in m. 53 over a long line.
#61 MENAGE À DROIT
Amy was out with tendonitis in her left hand for a while, so I wrote this little piece for right hand only to cheer her up. I don’t know if I ever planned for it to be performed. The title came from Rick Moody. In the piece, Some fast figuration in the upper register in small notes (meant to look like a Chopin prelude) morphs into swing, gets lower, and morphs back. In the middle, a pedal D is held and repeated, thanks to the Sostenuto pedal. The move from D to C signifies the beginning of the transition back to the beginning music, and recalls a similar finger-pedaled D pedal moving to C from Fists of Fury.
#62 NAME THAT TURN
Bears the distinction of there being the longest delay between finishing the piece and naming it. The name came from Hillary Zipper at the Cambridge Common over brunch about a week and a half after I finished it. The idea came when I heard some Haydn songs at a student recital at Brandeis, and a lot of phrases in the piano had turns at the incipit. I wondered what a piece with a LOT of turns would sound like, and so it was up to me to write it and find out. Halfway through there are a couple of fugatos in the good Hindemith manner, and an extra layer of difficulty is added near the end as fast broken octaves are added on top of the turns—a Davy specialty.
#63 KILLER B’S
Here I was asking myself the rhetorical question – in a chromatic idiom with fast-moving harmony such as I write, could I sustain a piece that had a pedal note in it? My strategy for sustaining the pedal note was simply to have it repeat in quarter notes, and frequently shift the “beat” to a dotted eighth and back – to keep the rhythm off balance. At the halfway mark, the repeated B starts slow, then speeds up, in a veiled tribute to the B’52s’s tune “Rock Lobster”.
Composer talk once the pedal B gets put into broken octaves going methodically up and down the keyboard, I made it a strategy to use all the B’s except the lowest, until the recapitulative coda. So several times the B’s seem to go to the lowest register, only to land on C, and finally resolve to B, Phrygian-like (or even Locrian-like) for the recap.
#64 A THIRD IN THE HAND
A very simple piece on arpeggiated (“melodic”) thirds. – yet another “thirds” etude, like The Third, Man and Twilight. They go up, and they go down, I like the slowly shifting perceived chord progressions, and there is a registral shape, and then it ends. For the ending, an octave is repeated in the right hand filled in with alternating major and minor thirds, and the ending sonority is the not-so-surprising G-sharp minor.
#65 RICK’S MOOD
Yet another etude prompted by a suggestion from Rick Moody – but this one was a double competition. In fall 2002, while I was on sabbatical and writing Book 5, he challenged me to write a piece using only major triads, and I challenged him to write a rhyming poem. My first version was written in two and a half days – it was harder to write than I thought – and premiered by Amy as an encore at Brandeis in March, 2003. I didn’t make the piece an étude at first, since it was just a silly bet. When Rick asked me why it wasn’t an étude, the only answer I had was that it wasn’t long enough. Twice, in 2004 and 2005, I returned to it and added phrases, lengthened existing phrases, and rewrote a few phrases, finally inserting in into Book 7 in time to be #65. Rick’s rhyming poem, by the way, was about spoonerisms, and near as I can figure, he never tried to publish it.
Composer talk the incipit returns as the middle of a phrase – stupid composer tricks.
#66 LESS IS
This one was also Rick Moody’s idea. He mused about what I would sound like if I were a Glass-like minimalist – using dissonant chords “and shit” instead of consonant ones, and moving faster harmonically. I had just finished writing the last of my Sex Songs, this one on a text by Rick, so I copped an upward-moving arpeggio from that song as the main material. Not a normal arpeggio, but more like a chord that builds from the bottom up, one note at a time, with the arpeggio as the perceived melody. That became the normal gesture for this piece, along with a repeated E and the gesture’s inversion. At the climax to the piece, both upward and downward-building gestures happen, and the chords are certainly dissonant.
The title actually came from Amy. Because all the ones Rick and I came up with, bitch, bitch, sucked.
#67 AIN’T GOT NO RIGHT
Corey Hamm (for whom Chord Shark and Wound Tight had been written) e-mailed me to say that he had tendonitis in his right hand and that he’d be pleased to work on or premiere any left-hand music I had. I already had two right-hand études, but no left-hand étude, so I told him I couldn’t help. But this was close to my February vacation, and after thinking about it a little, I couldn’t not write it. A bouncy but terse syncopated opening gives way to a more flowing middle section, which transits back to the opening music, and it climaxes in a passage that moves from register to register quite quickly.
This one got hot and heavy in the title sweepstakes, as detailed elsewhere, and besides Left Out to Dry and Sinister Motives, pressure was heavy to call it Gauche Busters. But as I passed Rossini’s restaurant in Concord, Mass., on my drive home from work, the title came to me.
The title is the politer version of the last line spoken by Big in the last episode of Sex in the City – also the last line of the first episode. It was July, I had finally been relieved of my very stressful music department Chairmanship, I had a piano trio to write, but I wasn’t feeling like writing piano trio music. So I turned to Rick Moody yet again for suggestions, who suggested a piece based on “Tower of Power licks”. Since such licks would likely be under copyright, I went instead for some generic licks you find in many funk tunes – two licks in particular (the lick that starts the second repeated section, and the upward-rising quasi arpeggio figure and syncopates over the beat). The first two short sections are repeated, and they’re all over the keyboard. The middle, long section, is a long build-up marked “Dirty (The Not Chairman Dances)” climaxes on a couple of wide repeated chords, and then a coda relaxes, including a figure that can be repeated 3 to 7 times. Finally at the end, the upward rising figure becomes a downward, figure and is sequenced.
Adam Marks picked up this piece and premiered it in New York, later taking it to the Concours International de Piano d’Orléans in 2006, which includes a Chevillion-Bonnaud Prize for the best new piano work played in the first round. Incredibly, it won that prize, but Adam didn’t move beyond the second round of the competition. So I got 4600 Euros, and Adam got diddly.
#69 PALM DE TERRE
Composed at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the title came from Beff. A slow and dreamy kind of étude, where I tried to make soft, pretty clusters and not the vicious poundy ones so often associated with clusters. Not a complicated piece, sounds a little like Ives in places.
#70 STUTTER STAB
A sort of companion piece to Wound Tight in that it’s a fast cool chords piece, but with the dynamics changing very, very fast. Here the rhythm owes a lot to bebop, as do a lot of the chords. In the middle of the piece the chords slow down and get sustained while a line in the middle of the texture emerges and disappears. And yes, also written at the VCCA, and the title came from Beff – a variation on “stutter step”, denoting the egregious rhythmic irregularity.
This was requested by Don Berman, and actually commissioned out of a grant from the Argosy Foundation. Don asked for an étude with an optional celesta part, and I was happy to comply. Here there is a flurry of arpeggiations in sixteenth notes that support a slow melody, occasionally interrupted by an upward-rising chorale in the piano only. The “Chase” of the piece denotes the arpeggiative sixteenth notes shared by the piano and celesta in unison occasionally going out of phase by one note, and catching back up.
#72 DORIAN BLUE
Another one for Don Berman, on a Dorian melody. The étude makes three passes through the tune, which is in the Dorian (or more specifically, HypoDorian) mode. To make it an étude, rapid two-hand flourishes are added, which become much more pervasive in the last pass. In the first pass, harmony is fairly diatonic and modal. In the second pass, chords moving chromatically and parallel become gradually thicker. In the last pass, all the registers of the piano are active, especially the deep bass.
#73 HEAVY HITTER
After I finished all of my summer writing, I still had five days left at Yaddo, so I asked around for étude ideas. Mike Kirkendoll, for whom I had just finished Gli Uccelli di Bogliasco, suggested a “heavy” étude – an idea I liked as a counterweight to Silent But Deadly, my pianissimo étude. I had also just finished a big piano concerto, which has a giant composed cadenza, with the indication that the performer can write his/her own, or improvise one on the spot. Just in case my composed cadenza never actually got played, I used its incipit as the incipit of Heavy Hitter. Most of the piece is quite athletic, with a motive of repeated chords in which an inner voice moves chromatically. At the two-thirds mark, a broken octave figure becomes the incipit of the final section leading to a quasi-recapitulation. Mike premiered the piece in New York on a piano that seemed to have at least one broken string; he was so forceful it’s a miracle he didn’t just chop the piano in half.
Adam Marks did a dissertation at NYU on piano pieces that call for the performer also to speak. To wit, he suggested that I should write him a “talking pianist” étude, an idea I dismissed out of hand. But since it represented the kind of weird challenge that eats at my brain, I started looking around for texts that were appropriate for a pianist to say while playing. I asked Rick Moody for some ideas, but ultimately none of them bore fruit.
Later, while looking on my computer in my folder of word processing files, I discovered a minimalist poem by Rick called Not that simply and slowly constructs the phrase “Not happy with it, not lying down for it” by combining its words into many different fragments and eventually “discovering” the underlying text. I asked Rick for permission to use it, and he said he’d been hoping I’d use it some day (I guess he had sent it to me in 2002 and I forgot about it). I abridged it somewhat, and wrote the piece as a kind of absurdist monodrama over a piano part that is by turns agitated and serene. This étude is by far the longest one (23 pages, 7-1/2 minutes), and Adam premiered it in Paris in the Salle Cortot on a recital sponsored by the Orléans piano competition.
Another étude on thirds which I wrote in a few days I had between finishing the school semester and flying to Europe for a vacation. I was thinking specifically of the accompaniment figures in “Zwielicht” in Schumann’s Op. 39 Liederkreis – which a student had just orchestrated in my Orchestration class. In my piece the opening sequence of thirds is repeated many times, both literally and in augmentation, which the surface speed occasionally speeds way up and the bass makes a welcome appearance. In the ending, there are a few actual brief quotes from the Schumann song.
Geoffrey Burleson suggested an étude on the “clave” rhythm, which underpins nearly all commercial Latin music. He wanted to play it in recital at his school, which has a strong commercial music program and a lot of Latin musicians. My approach to the first part of the piece was a kind of Nancarrow thing – to present the clave rhythm in several different simultaneous tempi that gradually get faster until the actual pulse of the piece is heard. At the halfway point, several simultaneous out-of-phase claves give the impression of a jerky arpeggiation, and that eventually evolves into a bebop solo accompanied by left-hand music on the clave rhythm (a reference to Bop It, also written for Geoff). At the end, the slow claves return.
#77 ECCO ECO
For my April 2007 school vacation, Corey Hamm suggested an “echo” etude, possibly thinking of the old Baroque echo sonatas wherein phrases were repeated immediately by contrasting groups of instruments. He also suggeested that the echoes could encroach on each other and destroy or shatter each other. In this piece, the echoes are usually simple events that repeat at various intervals, each time softer, as if played through a delay box. But in Ecco Eco, the time of delay keeps changing, and new material is often added before the echo of old material fades. Hence, this is an extremely difficult one because of the rapidly shifting dynamics and the many layers that are happening simultaneously – not to mention, the period of delay varies from four eighth notes all the way down to three sixteenths (as at the end).
#78 UPON REFLECTION
Also during my April vacation, Mike Kirkendoll suggested mirror etudes, and this is the first of two. This is a slow one (I always like to have one etude in each book that I can play, and this is the one for Book 8) where the left and right hands are exact mirrors – all that changes is the fulcrum of reflection, twice.
This is a fast mirror étude, and also a mirror canon – for most of the piece, the left hand plays the inversion of the right hand, usually one sixteenth note later. The usual fulcrum of reflection is the C# and D of the beginning of the piece, but that fulcrum shifts a few times. Toward the end, the hand relationship shifts, and the right hand follows the left by one sixteenth. The ending gesture calls for the hands to cross by about as much as they can, until the player looks straitjacketed.
I had prepared to lecture on Debussy’s 24th étude Feux d’artifice for my second year theory class after mistakenly downloading the score from an online sheet music archive – it was intriguing to look at and to hear, and was so provocative and simple that I resolved to write an étude inspired by it. After I finished my big project for 2007 (a wind ensemble piece), I wrote it while in the Stone Tower at Yaddo. Like Debussy’s, mine begins quiet, gets loud, and gets quiet again. With mine, a two-beat arpeggio pattern supports half-step rocking melodies in the middle voices that occasionally get more excited and bubble into much faster note patterns, perhaps signifying fireworks that interrupt idle waiting-around time. As with the usual fireworks shows, the first bursts are small ones, they get closer together and there’s one big show, followed by one little one, perhaps the leftovers. And that’s the shape of my Fireworks.
#81 KAI’N VARIATION
In the fall of 2007, I (and plenty of other composers) were approached by Kai Schumacher, a pianist in Amsterdam finishing a piano performance program, to write variations on a tune of his, to be collected into a single big variations set. The variations set would be on his final recital and would share it with Rzewski’s “People United” set. The theme is a fairly straightforward cocktail-piano type tune in D minor with a chromatically falling bass and a deceptive ending. My variation was long enough (a minute and a half) and complex enough that I felt comfortable calling it an étude “on diatonic scale fragments” – the opening D minor scale of Kai’s tune is the incipit of my variation, which turns into perpetual motion Bach-style writing. The harmonies of the original tune do appear in succession, with lots of passing and scale materials in between.
#82 F THIS
Shortly after Marilyn Nonken’s performance of my piano concerto, she e-mailed to ask if I knew any piano pieces on only one note. A student of hers, possibly looking for an extremely easy paper topic, had asked. I forwarded the question to Ken Ueno, who said there were a few pieces that use one pitch class in lots of different octaves, but none he could think of that used only one – and he added at the end, “sounds like a Davytude”. After I told him I didn’t go there, he responded, “sounds like a buttstick!”. So after the idea ate away a part of my brain, I started the piece as soon as my winter vacation started. The idea of the piece was to make it sound fast, use lots of dynamic and color differentiation (including plucked and stopped notes, and resonance caused by some notes held down with the sostenuto pedal), and move rapidly from pulse to pulse via metric modulations. I dedicated the piece both to Marilyn and Ken, and Marilyn premiered it as an encore at NYU in Feburary of 2008.
Nathanael May – who premiered Gli Uccelli di Bogliasco — asked for an étude for himself along a pretty amorphous premise: he wanted undulating low register stuff that would occasionally be broken into by upward rising arpeggios, such as he played many of in Gli Uccelli. After a false start on this piece in my February vacation, I returned in my April vacation, and reinterpreted that “undulating” figure as a fast, syncopated figure that tended to descend, alternating with a fortissimo incipit in octaves. Nathanael’s arpeggios then break the sort of obnoxiousness of that texture, and eventually become developed in their own right. At the end, the octave idea, previously interruptive, takes over. The title is a pun on Nathanael’s last name – “May Day”, a universal navigational cry for help, retranslated to the original French.
#84 WHAT’S HAIRPINNING
For some reason in the several days remaining of my April vacation – and despite the unseasonably gorgeous weather – I got the sound of crescendo-diminuendo repeated notes in my brain and wondered just how much I could slow down my compositional metabolism in an étude based on that figure. And the answer was – quite a lot, but hardly at all compared to a lot of composers. My étude takes almost a minute and a half to change the chord (an “accomplishment”, scare quotes and all), but then adds complications pretty quickly, mostly a descending chromatic figure. The other complications are simple polyrhythms, or pulses of different duration, and of course the fact that each hand is frequently called on to perform independent dynamic swells in two voices. I like the goofiness of the title.
#85 DIMINISHING RETURN
I arrived at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy for a six-week residency in mid-June, having had no writing time yet in the summer of 2008, and was on deadline to write a piece for Merkin Hall responding to jazz. When I finally had that seemingly unlimited time, I had no ideas for that piece, so I turned instead to an etude, one related to #84, and which had been prompted by #84 – another etude on individual dynamics, this time on fading fast repeated notes. The bunches of notes that get repeated vary in length, of course, and center around D (the opening gambit of D’s followed by B’s in the other hand is the same as the opening gambit of Pink Tab). A few syncopated non-repeated note lines emerge, but vanish just as quickly. The final sonority of C-sharp, D and E is the same pitch classes as the ending of #84.
#86 PROG SPRINGS ETERNAL
I often have asked Rick Moody for etude ideas, and he’s come up with some pretty good ones. I asked him again in the summer of 2007 when I was at Yaddo struggling with Phillis Levin Songs. His suggestion was to do a prog-rock etude – by now he knew I liked weird challenges, even ones I don’t understand. I asked him what sort of things he’d expect in such an etude, and he said he had no idea. Instead, he sent me a CD of a bunch of prog-rock tunes and said maybe I could sort it out that way. The stuff he sent ranged from complicated free jazz to pretentious stadium rock, so I had no idea exactly where to go.
A year later, when Geoff Burleson was staying at my house for a gig, I brought up this quandary. It turns out Geoff had a big prog rock phase in the 70s, and he was able to be a bit more specific, to wit: block structures; virtuosity for its own sake; sus4 chords; faux modality; and fake counterpoint. With that in hand, I was able to write the piece in three working days, during a strange block of twelve straight days I had off from teaching due to the Jewish holidays. When Geoff premiered it (in Canada!) he also noted, among other things, that the right hand figuration in bars 59-61 were faux Baroque, perfectly appropriate for the style.
After all the etude fodder Rick Moody had given me, it was entirely appropriate that when he became an expectant father that I dedicate an etude to the impending offspring (precedent was Judy Bettina and Jim Goldsworthy’s daughter Arianna (now in college), to whom I dedicated Musician back in 1990). I thought it should be simple enough for Rick or his wife Amy to play (and for me), and also fit within the range of a typical toy piano. So for an idea, I turned to the Stravinsky Five Fingers – much of which I learned in high school – and the tradition (if there is one) of five-finger piano pieces. Mine, of course, has different five-finger positions in each hand, and they shift – thus my including them when they shift in the score to the piece.
This was also written in that twelve-day window of free time, and was written in one day. Further, it was entered into Finale, and that same day, Geoff played through it on a toy piano, we recorded it, and put it onto YouTube. This way I could send the PDF to Rick and Amy (who was about four months pregnant at the time), and give them the URL of a performance. Cool, huh?
Of course, there is the option to play it on piano, on toy piano, or on any combination of the two. I suppose when we record it, we’ll do three versions.
#88 TOYED TOGETHER
Still in that twelve-day hiatus from teaching due to the Jewish holidays, I figured I’d finally bring a toy piano into an etude as a partner to the piano – having really liked the toy piano stuff in my piano concerto. So here it’s some fast unison writing, some dialoguing, and so forth – the piece is pretty simple in terms of its dialog between the two keyboards.
The beginning unisons take off on the beginning of a synthesizer solo in the break of a song by the Brand New Heavies – a CD of which I listened to often in the car when taking longer trips. I don’t recall the name of the song.
On a very cold and bleak – but bright – day at the beginning of my spring 2009 semester (in January), as I was putting a letter on the mailbox in front of the house for the postman to pick up, I noted a particularly sizable bit of bird poop on the top step. I looked directly up to the front porch light, and noted a bunch of bird poop in the fixture, too. Eww, said I, and cleaned up the poop from both places. Later I noted a bird that was using it as its bed, so I stuffed the fixture with newspaper.
But after I did that cleanup, I walked outside, and it seemed even bleaker, despite the bright sunshine. And I started listening to see if I could hear the winter birds. There were plenty of birds, but only very simple songs – the two-note chickadee song, an occasional trumpeting blue jay sound, and lots of chips and chirps. For some strange reason, it occurred to me that it might be a nice challenge to take two-note chirpy sounds and try to make an etude out of them – plus it would force me into the very high register of the piano, which I don’t use a lot.
This premise gave me some interesting things with the continuity – phrases that interrupt themselves, harmony that develops in odd ways, and planned strange interruptions. I couldn’t resist taking the motives to the low register, and joked to myself that the last gasp of the low register, fortissimo in bar 56, was a really, really big bird yelling at all the little ones to go away.
#90 SOLID GOLDIE
When Marilyn Nonken was planning her repertoire for her West Coast swing in the fall of 2009, she asked me for a list of the unperformed etudes, and I directed her to that list on my website. It was also known at this point that I would be on the west coast at the same time she was, since I was going to be the keynote speaker for the Festival of New American Music in Sacramento, and that festival was one of her planned gigs. I told her she always had the right to suggest the premise for a new etude – her immediate response was a Goldietude. Her first daughter Goldie was just a few months old at the time, and she thought a lullaby on Goldie’s initials might be a cool way to go. (GCH, or Goldie Celeste Hunka).
I liked that idea, and for a repeated pitch motive, it occurred to me first to build three-bar phrases of equal bar length – one for each note of the motive. And then, my first real process piece, ever, kicks in – the motive keeps being repeated in progressively shorter bars until they shrink to just one eighth note each. In the second iteration of that process, a full quote from the Brahms Lullaby, in the key of G-flat, kicks in. For the middle section, I simply repeat the three note motive in perpetual motion sixteenths, with cross accents and bitonal stuff in the other hand.
Marilyn premiered it at that festival in November, 2009, where she noted, “this seems to be your only etude that doesn’t go anywhere”. I commented that a) I didn’t agree, and b) why would a lullaby, of all things, want to go somewhere?
#91 WHOLE LOTTA SHAKIN’
The title is, of course, a Jerry Lee Lewis pun, and there is no quote from any Jerry Lee Lewis song. I had just finished Mikronomicon, for Boston Musica Viva, and that was a pretty hard piece to write. I still had two more pieces to write in the summer of 2009, but needed a respite, so of course it was etude time. Being that I knew I was beginning what would be the last book of etudes, I figured it was time to get to some traditional types of etude things that I had so far managed to avoid. Hence, tremolos.
My thoughts going in were that heavily pedaled tremolos on the piano were such a cliché that I’d avoid them when possible, and make the tremolos both syncopated and secco, and to find a use for a tune or some counterpoint in the available fingers not doing tremolos. The piece was written in Maynard in July of 2009, and I was glad when it was over.
#92 YOU BLEW IT
On my website I had casually mentioned that I was looking for etude ideas again, and Alexander Lane – an organist who had played an arrangement of my piece “Sara” while a student at Westminster Choir College, and who was then enrolled as an MFA student in musicology at Brandeis – sent a handwritten letter, as well as an e-mail, with all kinds of bizarre ideas (including a “Zaz Confrey” etude, whatever that would be). I had been thinking of putting melodica into an etude (both the pianist and percussionist play them in Mikronomicon), and Alex also made such a suggestion – though with a Davy-ish title, which of course I used.
This was written back in Vermont with a view of Lake Champlain at my work desk, and with both a melodica and my portable Yamaha keyboard; and the premise is the left hand on the piano and the right hand on the melodica. The idea was to play with a paradigm I use often – unisons breaking into counterpoint and into harmony, and coming back together, etc., and this piece does so as well. Though at one point there is a cute, tight canon. And there is some actual tonguing work, in repeated chords, towards the end.
Geoff Burleson noted that both parts were quite challenging, and that he’d call it a double etude – a left hand etude with a melodica etude that just happens to go on at the same time.
My friend Jim Ricci has a blog called Deconstructing Jim, and I tune in about once a month to see how it’s going. We overlapped as students at NEC and were briefly roommates in Brookline, Massachusetts, in the mid 80s. One of Jim’s blog entries was about the polka and about how he was going to try to write a Modernist one. There were plenty of ironic polkas by Russian composers, but none by Americans of which he knew.
I liked the idea, so when I finished my composing work for the summer, I did the same. I looked up several polkas on YouTube, and figured out the customary gestures – especially the pointless accordion virtuosity that permeated many of them – and wrote the piece in four days, in Vermont. I sent it to Jim, who it turns out had never written his Modernist polka, but sent me instead his variations on Silent Night.
My piece does utilize a bit of pointless accordion virtuosity in both hands; it also owes more than a little to those Shostakovich and Prokofiev polkas.
My friend Harold Meltzer frequently calls with silly ideas for etudes, mostly because of the clever names (example: prepared piano, but only on all the B’s. Title: Preparation H), and at dinner he was giving me another list. One suggestion was a knocking and hitting piece to be called The Postman Always Knocks Twice. I didn’t like the title, but the suggestion was intriguing.
So to figure out what kinds of sounds I could make with such a piece, I took my Flip Video to Brandeis and filmed myself knocking one of the grand pianos in various places, with various pedaling, took it home and listened a while, and then wrote the piece. I think there will be resistance to the sound of slamming the lid, but the rest – well, it was a relief, I guess, to get to write something without any tunes, harmony, or counterpoint – but that I still had to write at the piano.
I was in contact with I-Chen Yeh, a pianist in the contemporary performance program at Bowling Green State, about her dissertation on my etudes (as far as I knew, the first such completed one), and could we do a face-to-face to answer her questions. She also learned five etudes and asked if I could coach her on them. So she and her boyfriend Karl (also in the BGSU program) visited me at Brandeis on an off-day, and we started by her playing the etudes, which were so marvelously done that I asked for permission to film and put them onto YouTube.
Later, I took them, and Beff, to lunch at a Thai restaurant in Maynard, she did the interview, and I mentioned that she and Karl could always suggest etudes. So in addition to a “resonance” etude (which I never got around to), she suggested she liked various textures in Ravel’s Gaspard. Good, said I, and I asked her on what note they would be based – she mentioned G below middle C and the F a little less than two octaves higher. Those would be the fulcrum notes of the piece.
For whatever reason, when I got to the point of writing this – during my Passover vacation – the backdrop to those flitty gestures that came to me was a morse code kind of uneven repeated note thing. So that becomes the “point” of the etude, while the Ravel-type gestures become sort of the decorations. Often chords build up from G to that F, or down from that F to that G. Being as the gestures were flitty, the piece is called Flit, as in the motion of a moth around a flame.
#96 DOUBLE CROSS
It was time for the big cross-accent etude. Just about all of them have cross accents anyway, but to build a bigger piece around such a thing was the challenge for this one, and was the first compositional project for my 2010-11 sabbatical. At the start, it’s just a major second that builds into an almost-blues scale thing, but then other things happen, and after a while the major second thing saturated my head and made me think of the beginning of Golliwog’s Cakewalk. Thus there is a very well-hidden quote, only in the right hand, of that piece at the end.
I went to Facebook for a “title sweepstakes” for this piece, since none of the titles that had come to me were that good. Adam Marks won the sweepstakes by suggesting “Double Crossed”, which I edited just a bit. So, it’s my first etude named online.
Every book of études has to have one simple one that even I can play, and this is the one for Book X. It’s yet another one on just one kind of chord, this one being on dominant seventh chords. I used the Schumannesque falling arpeggio texture for the opening premise, and to make it more interesting in the middle, stretch out the counterpoint a bit to get sonorities that are different, and more dissonant.
Augusta Thomas is a very, very good friend, and has been a fan of the études for a long time. It’s because of her programming of some at the Chicago Symphony that I met Amy Briggs, for instance, and she programmed six for the Contemporary Music Festival at Tanglewood in summer 2009 (my first performance there since I was a Fellow in 1982). She herself has six piano études, one of them dedicated to me, so here I return the favor. As it seems her favorites are E-Machines and several of the slower ones.
Geoff Burleson had suggested a wildly virtuosic etude based on the rising-and-falling texture of the “Ocean Wave” etude of Chopin, Op. 25 No. 12. I looked up several videos of the piece on YouTube, and that piece seems to conquer more pianists than conquer it. I became briefly obsessed with the Chopin piece itself, and watched the Valentina Lisitsa YouTube video several times – mostly to see what the hand positions are like to get such fast up-and-down. So my piece starts with a similar shape, but of course mixes it up and makes it harder by having the hand shifts in each hand not coincide.
The title comes from the nickname Ocean Wave given to the Chopin étude and Italian newspaper weather reports from the year I spent in Rome. Relative turbulence on the sea in the marine reports was called “poco mosso,” “mosso”, and “molto mosso”.
#99 MANO WAR
A piece I had to write because I liked the title. It’s pretty much a sped-up, and much more intense, version of Fists of Fury, except without the fists – though when writing it, I was thinking more of the beginning of the cadenza of my piano concerto. Since it’s getting towards the end of the études all time, there is an extremely, extremely well-hidden, but incomplete, quote from Smoke on the Water, spread across both hands in m. 65 into the downbeat of m. 66. Geoff Burleson calls this piece “a great piano piece, and a great conga piece, too”.
#100 TWO GREAT TASTES
Adam Marks had been suggesting, for some time, a four-hands étude, likely to play with Amy Briggs – since they’re both in Chicago – and my thoughts about that went towards writing two études that can be played separately, or together with one of them as the Primo and the other the Secondo in a four-hands version. After finishing Mano War, it was my birthday and at dinner I described this premise to Beff, who suggested I call it “Two Great Tastes,” after the classic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials.
There is a bit of back story to the expression, as well. My band piece Ten of a Kind, which I wrote for the Marine Band in 2000 used ten clarinets as a kind of concerto soloist, but it was also structured like a symphony – in fact, I called it my Symphony #2. When the band took it to the WASBE conference in Lucerne, Switzerland, my only responsibility (in exchange for airfare, hotel, and meals), was to speak for 2 or 3 minutes before the performance, to an international audience. Most of them Swiss. When I said the piece was both a concerto and a symphony, I added, “two great tastes that taste great together”, as in the Reese’s commercial. Dead silence. Most of the audience didn’t have that reference.
In any case, given Beff’s suggestion, I called each half-étude one of the two great tastes – peanut butter, in German, and chocolate, in Italian. But wait, there’s more. Since those commercials always have the lines “you got peanut butter in my chocolate!” and “you got chocolate in my peanut butter!”, there is a brief section in each sub-étude where it is infected by the other one. Which is noted in the scores in bar 36.
Where the denouement occurs, starting in bar 39, there are quotes from other études as befit the players for whom it was written – Erdnußbutter arpeggiates the opening harmonies of “Not”, written for Adam; and Cioccolato references “Taking the Fifths”, which has always been one of my favorites. Then there is a proper recapitulation, and a running out of steam. The final gesture, in Cioccolato is also the final gesture in E-Machines (the bottom two black keys on the piano), thus providing a kind of closure for the whole set.