Paul Cantrell’s music blog & podcast
Piano music old and new from a devoted amateur,
all free to listen to, download, and share.

The Kickstarter project for The Broken Mirror of Memory has passed its first major milestone! I’m now able to pay for printing the CD, and distributing in online music stores. Huzzah!! In celebration, and as a huge thank you to all the awesome backers who have pitched in so far, I’m posting part 1 (out of 4) of the piece.

Here it is!

The Broken Mirror of Memory, Part 1
Pat O’Keefe, bass clarinet
Paul Cantrell, piano

This music comes right out of the gate at full speed, the piano and the bass clarinet in a state of swirling mutual entanglement. On the first note, Pat actually growls into the instrument while playing, producing a rough sound that punches right through the mix — but then the bass clarinet is immediately submerged under the piano, resurfacing, submerging again….

The movement leaves us hanging with a big thorny knot, energy spent but unresolved. It was only two minutes, but the music covered a lot of ground — and never once gave us a chance to truly rest. We’re desperate to catch our breath, and that is just what Part 2 does, answering density with spareness, crowded turbulence with isolated wandering in an abstract vastness. When we get a bit farther down the road of Kickstarter goals, I'll post it.

We’re now stretching for the next goal on Kickstarter: raising enough to get the word out about the recording. If you haven’t backed the project yet, please consider it! You can get a CD and/or the full-quality digital version, which have a clarity and fullness of sound that these low-bitrate MP3 lack. (Plus, of course, the CD will have the complete piece!)

Update: The Kickstarter campaign was a smashing success! The recording is now released!

Astute readers of this blog will notice that it’s been a really, really long time since I've posted a new recording. I have not been musically idle, however! Oh no. I have been working my little pianist tusch off.

One of the projects I've been working on, years in the making, is now finally coming to fruition. It is a composition for bass clarinet and piano called The Broken Mirror of Memory. Here’s my attempt to describe the piece, from the score’s performance notes:

Entanglement, soliloquy, tango, flight: each movement poses a problem from which the next unfolds. Themes continually resurface, transformed, as the music reinvents its own past — the endless process Gabriel García Márquez described as “piecing together the broken mirror of memory from so many scattered shards.” The coda gathers everything together, grappling, burning down — and then, from the embers, a simple benediction emerges, present all along, now laid bare. We discover in retrospect that the music’s destination has always been its source.

I've made a recording with the excellent Pat O’Keefe on bass clarinet, and I've worked harder on this recording than any I've ever made. It takes the mixing and mastering to whole new level. I think it is my best work, and I can't wait for you to hear it!

But … I'm not posting it on In the Hands just yet. “Oh, Paul!” you cry. “Hear me out!” I reply. First, I'm doing a Kickstarter project to get the recording printed up properly, so that you’ll be able to get a copy and hear it in its full CD-quality glory! Yay! If you can spare the five minutes, here's a little video I made that discusses the piece and its story in more detail:

If you’ve enjoyed the recordings I’ve posted here over the years, please consider backing the project. I really put my heart into this, and I promise it’s worth it! And stay tuned — more is on the way.

Update: The campaign was a smashing success! The CD is now available.

Ten years ago, I was trying to figure out what the heck to do with myself. I wanted to stay serious about music and not give up my piano training, but the world of professional piano performance was clearly not my cup of tea. I wanted a world my music could live in, and wasn’t sure where to find it.

Then these two delightfully crazy musicians named Carei Thomas and Todd Harper asked me to do a concert with them.

Visiting the house of my composer friend Matthew Smith (who has an outstanding CD out now, by the way), I noticed the score to Chopin’s E minor prelude out on the piano. It turns out that his wife, children’s book illustrator and author Lauren Stringer, is taking piano lessons, and she has been working on it. I was delighted — the piece is a favorite of mine. I dug out my recording of it for her to hear, and decided it was high time that I release a remastered version.

The piece has been a popular one on In the Hands — people have left many comments on it — and I think that’s because it’s so popular with beginning piano students like Lauren. All of us who are, or once were, beginners owe Chopin our thanks for this piece: it is a great one, yet it’s within reach of a beginning pianist. (That’s not to undercut the task of learning it. Any pianist who has learned to play it well ought to be proud of their accomplishment! It is not in any way a trivial thing.)

I abhor the idea that material for beginners should be dumbed down. Simplicity is necessary, but simplicity need not be dumb. We are especially guilty of doing this to children, but it happens to beginners of all ages. It’s kind of bait and switch: somebody loves music so much that they find the courage to start taking lessons, then we give them music that’s not worth loving, holding off the real stuff until they’re more advanced. It’s disrespectful, and it’s counterproductive: the lessons of substance and meaning do not need to follow years and years after the lessons of reading and technique. We do the same thing with reading, with math — especially with math! — oh, don’t get me started.

I see it as a challenge to us composers: Chopin, who wrote some of the most difficult piano music out there, managed to produce this music of tremendous depth without needing to make it tremendously difficult. If he can do it, why can’t we? OK, actually, making something both great and simple is one of the most difficult artistic challenges there is, but it’s also one of the worthiest. Lauren certainly knows that: the best picture books can tell compelling stories that tackle layered, subtle, and difficult ideas using only a very few words and elemental artwork, and they are powerful for their simplicity. Her gorgeous latest book is a nice essay on how the choices we make in our perception of reality shape that reality and our lives — though she says it much more simply, and more effectively!

I’ve paired the E minor prelude with the E major one. The latter is a bit more difficult (mostly because of the wider stretches), but is also within a dedicated beginner’s reach, and also a great one. It has a wonderful chord progression, and a very interesting structure: we set out from the same point of departure three times (0:00, 0:28, 0:58), each time finding a new path with newly surprising modulations. I learned these two preludes one after the other, and think they make a great segue. I do like the big contrasts!

Prelude Op 28 No 4 (in E minor)
Paul Cantrell, piano
Prelude Op 28 No 9 (in E major)
Paul Cantrell, piano

Attention, beginners, would-be beginners, and especially those who say, “Oh, I wish I could learn to play the piano! But I’m just too old / too busy / too tonedeaf / too whatever.” Rubbish! Balderdash! Pish, piffle, and poppycock! It is never too late to start. Be bold! Lauren was; you can be too. Great music is not out of your reach.

I don’t usually write jazz tunes, but my friend Todd asked me to write one for him. It sounded like fun, and he had written several great pieces for me, so I took up the challenge. Nomade à Clef is the result.

Todd premiered it at this year’s Keys Please, with David Edminster on tenor sax, and I think they did just a marvelous job with it. They really made it fly. I only wrote a lead sheet (just melody and chords) with a bare-bones piano part underneath to suggest voicings in the piano — the rest of the work is theirs, including Todd’s solo intro and all of David’s development of the melody. I feel like this recording is their piece more than mine … and that feeling is a good one, the pleasure of a successful handoff. I suppose this is the nature of jazz? No, it is the nature of all music written by one person and performed by another, no matter how explicitly notated or how little improvised: in playing music, if we play it well, we necessarily make it our own.

Recorded live in concert, here is…

Nomade à Clef
David Edminster, tenor sax
Todd Harper, piano

The title means “Nomad in a Key,” a wanderer with a home.

Things may have been quiet on the blog, but I’ve been doing tons of music work lately. The recent round of Zo went well: I took a bit of a risk playing mostly pieces that were fresh out of the practice oven (or, in a couple of cases, still baking), but people seemed to enjoy it, and I was certainly satisfied.

(If you want to know about future concerts, you should get on the mailing list.)

Concerts done, I’m now composing day and night, quite productively. I now have a complete first draft of my set of dances! The last big obstacle was a sort of “keystone moment” in the piece, where everything has to come together just so — but with some dogged persistence and late nights, I pushed through and filled in the final hole in the cycle. It’s very exciting; I’ve been working on them since forever.

Even though I have a complete draft, however, a huge amount of work remains: there’s a lot of refining and revising, practicing, and polishing the interpretation necessary in order to get a really good recording together. It will be a good long while before you can hear the full cycle.

In the meantime, I’m recording rough versions of the pieces as I learn to play them. I always hesitate a bit to do that, because the rough versions are, in fact, rough, and don’t completely convey the ideas of the music. There’s always a danger that the ideas will be so muddled that the music will just sound like a jumble of notes. Performance really matters!

However, I don’t like the alternative of not sharing anything until it’s perfect; I’d rather keep people at least somewhat in the loop on what I’ve been doing — partly because folks seem to enjoy it, and partly because I’m eager to share! Enough of the music comes through in these rough versions, I think, to let you in on the fun of watching the whole cycle emerge.

In that spirit, then, here’s one I finished writing a couple of months ago and am now playing somewhat successfully. It was a hit with the audience at Zo. As per the warning above: the performance is not yet completely assured: you’ll hear me struggling for notes in some spots. Use your imagination a bit, and pretend it’s rock-solid steady. Or just pretend it rocks.

Manic Dance (rough version)
Paul Cantrell, piano

The sound at the beginning is a whack from the music desk being pushed back. After that, throughout the piece, you’ll hear fingertips damping the strings — sometimes after the hammer strikes and sometimes as it strikes. I love that sound, and this isn’t the first time I’ve used it.