Composer’s Notebook #5

Announcement of première performance of Three Concert Pieces for piano

I am very pleased to announce that my Three Concert Pieces for piano will receive its première performance in the Utzon Room at the Sydney Opera House on 9 February at 7 pm. The pianist is a good friend and colleague, Nicholas Young, with whom I collaborated frequently during our time at the Sydney Conservatorium. It is a pleasure to work with him again, but this time as a composer!

For more information about the concert and ticketing, click here to be directed to the corresponding page on the Sydney Opera House website.

For some insight into Nicholas’ project, and the rationale behind such a concert, you may be interested in this interview for CutCommon magazine.

The program notes for the concert are available online now.

About the pieces

The Three Concert Pieces represent my first attempt at a ‘serious’ work (for lack of a better term) for solo piano. However, I had been writing for piano for quite a long time. Being a self-taught composer, I developed my craft primarily by imitation of composers I admired. This involves writing short pieces or variations of a melody based on the the various styles of the composers I studied. Although I do not play the piano myself, the instrument is nevertheless ideal for experimentation, for reasons I have outlined in a previous blogpost. A composer can develop their understanding of such fundamental tools as melody, harmony, counterpoint, texture, and tone colour all with the one instrument. Moreover, the ubiquity of the piano not only in classical music, but also in jazz and popular music, allows a tremendous freedom of expression. No matter what style of music you want to write, the piano has something important to say — it is perhaps the most versatile instrument of all.

In the classical tradition, pianists pride themselves on their ability to make the piano “play anything” — from the most intimate melodies to thundering orchestral textures or complex fugues. In my piano pieces, I have endeavoured to capture the richness and diversity of musical expression the piano has to offer.

The first piece, Allegretto, is very short, lasting just over 2 minutes. I was inspired very much by the piano works of Schoenberg and the piano sonata (Op. 1) of Alban Berg, and I believe this is evident in the dense contrapuntal textures, economical motivic working, and concision in structure.

piano1

Opening of the Allegretto, which contains all the essential ingredients of the piece.

However, there is an element that looks ahead to the following two pieces, and is a result of my study of Elliott Carter’s music. The opening presents two contrasting characters: a dolce, legato motif, and a witty staccato motif. With this setup, I can move away from the classical melody-plus-harmony texture, and instead create two distinct layers, which may or may not move in the same way. Thus it creates the opportunity for some interesting counterpoint in melody, as well as in character!

The second piece is an expansive Adagio, and is very remote from the obsessive motivic working and condensed structure of the first piece. Indeed, it contains virtually no melody in a classical sense. The entire piece is built by overlapping layers of pulsating chords, which are free to resonate and interact in a way that naturally produces rich and complex harmonies. The layers also partition the range of the piano, and moreover, the period of pulsation in each layer is different. The result is complex, as exemplified in this excerpt near the end of the piece:

Mui_concert-piece-2

I like to imagine large pendulums (*) with different oscillation periods, all swinging slowly and independently. However, I do not assign a certain speed to each layer, and then proceed mechanically to write out the resulting pattern. Particularly from the second half of the piece onwards, I take more liberties with rhythmic invention for the sake of interest, while keeping the overall effect of being ‘suspended’ in time. By this I mean that, with the exception of the climax, you will never hear a clear downbeat anywhere! This is the most overtly Carteresque out of the three pieces, in my view.

The third and final piece is the Allegro diabolico (alla toccata), and is essentially a virtuosic moto perpetuo: a continuous stream of fast notes from beginning to end. The first half of the piece is playful and witty, making some use of abrupt contrasts in dynamics and harmony. As the material develops and increases in complexity, the ‘diabolical’ character becomes more apparent. However, just before the music approaches a violent character, there is a surprising intrusion of calmness:

piano3

The tranquility is short-lived, and the music grows in intensity once again, this time without interruption all the way to a ferocious coda. Towards the end, I insert a highly dissonant chord which breaks up the stream of semiquavers at irregular intervals. The violence of this chord suggests a great force trying to oppose the momentum of the semiquaver notes — as if trying to stop an imminent disaster. The final ‘push’ is marked with the almost ridiculous (**) instruction sfffff — that’s five f‘s — and the work concludes with a musical explosion and disintegration!

piano4

While the pieces were not initially conceived as being part of a whole, it makes sense to put them together as a suite of Concert Pieces. They share the same harmonic language, one that I have gradually developed over the years, and collectively represent a style which I can consider my own. They are very different in character and form, but all three share the same attitude of discovery and exploration, of constant development, and a preoccupation with finding the right balance between contrast and continuity.


Footnotes

(*) As anyone familiar with pendulum physics will know, the mass of the pendulum bob does not affect the oscillation period. But for the sake of musical imagery, let’s imagine that the pendulums are also very large and heavy, as well as being attached to a long rod, or being in an environment with small gravitational acceleration…

(**) I say that this is almost ridiculous, because I know for a fact that more extreme dynamics are found in the works of György Ligeti.

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