When I started In the Hands, I also started recording little unplanned improvisations. I’d done some of this same sort of work during college in the Macalester New Music Ensemble, and some things like it at Keys Please, but it wasn’t until last year that I started putting a regular, concerted effort into playing and recording these.
They’re perhaps not as interestingly layered or as structurally satisfying as the compositions, but they have a raw energy and spirit of playfulness that I like. They’re also good calisthenics: doing them helps keep me loose and flexible for composing. Writing music, it’s easy to get bogged down in endless revision or over-conceptualized note derivation; these improvs help me maintain the balance between conception and intuition.
I originally had the idea of giving the improvs nonsense word names, like “Fleedle” and “Scrunkic", but when I recorded these three, they somehow fit perfectly the names of three little towns in Wyoming my family has always loved for their too-good-to-be true poetic names: Lusk, Lingle, and Torrington. Since then, I’ve been naming all the improvs after Wyoming towns and counties — it turns out that the state is a gold mine of wonderful words!
These three make a set of sorts: I sat down with no plan or preconception and played them back to back, just as you hear them here — in this order, in fact. My little Wyoming triptych!
This piece is my old, trusted standby. I wrote it back in college, in the winter and spring of 1998, and since then it’s been the one piece of my own that I’ve continually kept in my hands and head, always at the ready when somebody says, “Play something you wrote, Paul!” It still remains satisfying to me: the shape is simple, but interesting little puzzles keep emerging from within.
In all that time, however, only live audiences have had a chance to really experience the music — but just now, listening to the remastered version, I finally had the sense of “Yes, that’s it, that’s Three Places.” It’s not just that it finally sounds realistic; it’s the first time the music of the piece has really come through in the recording, from the three-dimensional layers of the opening, to the warmth of the whispered final low note against the cold of the final high one.
People often ask if they are three specific places. They aren’t. At the time, my mom was writing a lot about the “idea of place,” and I thought I’d call these three little pieces musical places. So I have no explanation of what the piece “means,” but I will offer this: I often like to include a little quote at the end of my pieces, not an explanation, but an evocative image or idea to open the piece to exploration. This piece’s epigraph is from the Mahabharata (William Buck’s translation):
As Lord Brahma sleeps, he hears something lost mentioned in his dream of life, and he remembers and it appears again among us as it was long ago.
Compare this to the old mastering process, or to a different recording made in a concert hall. Whoa! Here’s the score.
This is the first recording I posted to In the Hands, so it seemed fitting that it be the first to go out in its remastered form.
It’s a piece Brahms wrote late in life, a lullaby. He included a motto at the top from an old Scottish folk song, which in modern English is roughly:
Sleep, my child, now sweetly sleep
It grieves my heart to see you weep.
Brahms is perhaps the most humane composer I know, most especially in these last piano pieces of his. I wrote last week about the embrace between the music and the listener. This music’s embrace is tender and compassionate, and in its arms, we are all children, all loved.
For those listening closely, a fortuitous thunderclap snuck into the opening. I left it in.
My recent mastering experiments have been all about reproducing … well, not the literal sound, but the musical spirit of real-life piano — but of course there’s another side to this software I’m using, and it seemed a shame not to play with it! So I went and had some fun with Niobrara. (Some fragments of another improv are also tucked away in there; a free CD to the first person to correctly identify which one.) I hope you enjoy this little musical excursion!
Niobrara (Interstellar Medium Remix)
All these sounds are acoustic piano processed in various ways. The software you’re hearing: Logic Express, Eqium, SupaPhaser, Bouncy, Scrubby, SoundHack, and Stereo Image Munger.
My mom heard a bit of this stuff when I started fooling with it in Colorado, and called it “Sybil Music” after the wonderful watercolors of Sibyl Stork. Alas, the photos on her web site don’t do the paintings justice!
I have been busy applying for a fellowship, and also writing writing writing more music. Here is a new one in the set of dances I’ve been working on — as with the others I’ve recorded, a rough performance (there’s a section in the middle that is horrendously hobbled together), but enough to give you the idea. (The score.)
Disembodied Dance (rough version)
This is probably the weirdest, most abstract thing I’ve ever written. I love it. But be warned: those of you who found the Dance for Remembering and Forgetting a bit puzzling will be completely freaked out by this one. That is OK. It is your prerogative to be freaked out.
And yes, this is the same set of dances that includes the Cradle Waltz. I promise it will all make sense in the end.
Fascinating fun fact: I thought as I was writing this that it would turn out about three or four minutes long. As I got to the end, I though, “Well, it’s run up to five.” It wasn’t until I made this recording that I realized how long it actually is, and it took me completely by surprise. It doesn’t feel over seven minutes long to me — just as the third ballade doesn’t feel under ten. Strange how music alters our sense of the passage of time. Update: I made some substantial practices and made a re-recording, now it’s five. Was the finished length always in my mind? Moral: composition is as much a mystery to the composer as to everyone else.
What do you do when your piano’s a touch out of tune? You record an improv like this. Or at least I do.
Oh, you say you wanted a piano improv with actual notes? Well then, check out Chris Morris’s very clever tip of the hat to the In the Hands improvs. Yes, it’s this site’s very first piece of fan art ever — and nicely done at that! So awesome. Thanks, Chris!
He has a bunch of other music on his site, more jazz-leaning and thus a nice counterpoint to the stuff here, all ready for your downloading and listening delectation. Don’t keep the man waiting. Go visit!
I wrote recently about the the danger that virtuosity can make us neglect the virtues of simplicity, and even neglect the music itself. That is true not only of a simple masterpiece like the prelude I was talking about, but also of technically difficult pieces — such as the Chopin ballades.
In everything Chopin writes, no matter how complex and virtuosic, that powerful simplicity is there at the core. Although he wrote some very difficult and impressive stuff, the ultimate effect of his music, I feel, should never really be to impress. But that’s exactly what the pianists we usually hear are striving to do: impress the contest judges, the critics, the public. The world we classical performers live in gives us very little room not to play big show pieces, or make everything we play into one.
Chopin’s third ballade suffers particularly from this problem. The ballades are all difficult, but it’s the easiest of them (sort of like the shortest Himalaya). It seems as though all the star performers I’ve heard end up trying to make it as hard as the others by plowing through it with virtuosic flare, and thus trivializing it.
What wonderful music it is that gets plowed under when that happens! I could spend the whole next month talking about this piece, about how Chopin plays with the sense of return, about his use of dissonance as an architectural device, about all those wonderful melodies … but for now, I’ll just leave you with this one thought to perhaps open a mental door: The melody that opens the piece is the stepping-off point for all that follows in the next two and a half minutes, but then it disappears, and the music goes somewhere else entirely. Listen for it. The experience of wanting that melody to return, and it not returning and not returning and then — that’s the force that shapes the piece.
Ballade Op 47 (in A flat major)
So this is my current take on the other, non-virtuosic side of Chopin’s third ballade. I actually recorded this several weeks ago, but found that listening back to the recording and hearing all the little nuances I could play slightly differently, all the little things I want to fix, all the different options in all the takes I’d already done, sent me into a tailspin of endless revision from which there would have been no return save in the back of a van wearing a straight jacket. (I mean me wearing the straight jacket, not the van.) So I give myself a little breather until I could make it through the process of editing, mastering, and posting the piece with my sanity (such as it is) intact.
Gosh, I sure play this piece differently than when I was 21 — more differently than I’d remembered. Better? Heck if I know; it’s too late at night to decide stuff like that. Don’s version is also quite different. And in a few years, I’ll probably play it yet another new way. It’s a cheerful thought: I take great comfort in knowing that it’s not possible for me to ever exhaust the interpretive possibilities of Chopin.
To conclude this trip down prelude memory lane (at least for the time being), here is the veeery first piece I worked on with Don Betts. I’ve actually hardly played this one since that first year of lessons, but I found it came back quickly. Is playing a piece like riding a bicycle? Maybe a little.
Prelude Op 28 No 4 (in E minor)
Don always gives this one to his beginner students. At the time, although I’d had piano lessons for many years as a child, and had recently played piano in a dixie band, I was still really a beginner in many ways. I’d brought Louis Lortie’s recording of the Chopin études (or more accurately, stolen it from my parents), and as I fell in love with Chopin, I began to think that taking piano lessons might not be such a bad thing. So I signed up, Don gave me this piece, and now here I am, quitting my job to noodle around with the piano all day.
I realize just now as I write this that my first lesson with Don would have been ten years ago this month. Gosh.