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.

Continue reading

Composer’s Notebook #4

On Composing for the Piano

This blog post appears at quite an appropriate time. As I write, the Sydney International Piano Competition is just about to wrap up, and I am also planning to write a piano trio, a classic but nonetheless difficult chamber combination. All this has led me to consider carefully why and how I write for the piano. Continue reading

Composer’s Notebook #3

I haven’t posted written anything here for a long time, since I’m busy with Uni study, but here’s a quick piece!

This is a fascinating video of the 2nd movement of Webern’s Variations. I highly recommend listening to the whole piece — after all, even with all the three movements combined, it’s only 5 minutes long! I want to point out a few important features here.

First of all, when I first came across this piece some years ago, I thought it was very beautiful. In case you’re interested, the recording was by Mitsuko Uchida (the album also features the Schoenberg Piano Concerto). Played by a computer here, it sounds rather ugly to me, which dispels the misconception that somehow serial music is completely emotionless.

Secondly, the binary form of this movement is perfectly visible in this animation, you can even tell where the repeats are! The pitch symmetry is also very clear from the graphics, and we appreciate the almost mathematical precision of the structure.

Thirdly, those of you more familiar with 12-tone music might hear that the harmony is very saturated. I haven’t studied this piece in detail at all, but I think one can discern by ear the inherent symmetries in Webern’s tone row manipulations. Indeed if you look at the score, you will see many palindromic phrases. In order to construct such highly symmetrical music it is necessary to restrict the set of “allowable” chords — this is what I mean by “saturation.” (There are probably more precise ways of expressing this idea, but I don’t wish to get too technical, and in any case I’m no expert in 12-tone theory). This practice is predominant in much of Webern’s mature style, but I’m thinking especially of the Concerto Op. 24, whose tone row has so many symmetries, it is the musical equivalent of a magic square. Click this link to the Wikipedia article if you want a brief overview of the Concerto. Here I cannot help but use mathematical terminology: because the harmonic ‘domain’ is so restricted, eventually we begin to feel that the harmony is static, since we have practically exhausted all the permutations of the particular elements in the set. Note that I’m not trying to be obscure — ‘chord’ in 20th century music theory can be virtually any group of notes, and in more abstract contexts is usually called a pitch-class set. This tendency towards saturation might be one of the reasons why Webern’s compositions are so short, yet each is exquisitely crafted according to a rigorous logic.

Of course, the most important dimension is missing in this discussion: the human performer. While it is fascinating to discuss Webern’s music in abstract and theoretical terms, it is altogether a different experience to listen to it, or indeed to perform it. But that’s probably a discussion for another time.

Composer’s Notebook #2

A Brief Commentary on “My Favourite Things”:  Valse-Caprice for 2 pianos

For the past few years now, I have been writing short piano “showpieces” around Christmas time, and posting them to my YouTube channel. It started out in a rather silly fashion with the Capriccio festivo for 2 pianos, which is clearly a joke piece more than anything (although to my defence, it does have interesting manipulations of themes and textural ideas). In subsequent years, I wrote piano fugues mainly as challenging composition exercises to develop my craft. These pieces have been received well. However my skill as a composer has certainly increased since the festive Capriccio of 2010, and so this year’s offering is of a much higher quality. In particular, I hope that it can serve well as a concert item or an encore, without sacrificing too much of the humour and sense of fun, which is always a priority in my “novelty” works.

I didn’t have any good ideas for a piece based on Christmas carols this year, but coincidentally the year 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Sound of Music film. Hence I focused my attention on the tune My Favourite Things and produced this Valse-Caprice for 2 pianos. Due to the more ambitious nature of the work, it has caused me more trouble than the fugues of previous years, and features more daring ideas and harmonies. However, I have also borrowed some humour from the earlier Capriccio festivo. In this new piece, you will also find some sneaky quotations of great classical composers (can you name them? and which works do I quote?), unexpected modulations, and of course, true to my training, contrapuntal shenanigans.

I must make it clear that I don’t play the piano at all, so why write so many works for the keyboard? Earlier this year, I finished my Three Concert Pieces for solo piano, a serious work to challenge the most advanced students and professional pianists. Obviously, I enjoy writing for the piano very much. Even if I don’t play it, I have now developed over the years a decent sense of what sounds good on the instrument — and what a tremendous instrument, when used properly! In fact, it is the piano’s ability to evoke the many colours of the orchestra that makes it both an exciting solo instrument as well as an ideal “sound laboratory” for any composer. I have tried to include some orchestral effects in my Valse too.

That’s all from me at this point, the rest is up to the listener. I hope you enjoy this piece!

Composer’s Notebook #1

I have decided to record some of my thoughts on composition on this blog. In the good ol’ days, these things were usually penned down into a notebook or included in letters to friends and colleagues, but now we have the Internet!

Finals of the Kendall National Violin Competition

For this first notebook entry, I would like to say a few words about my recent trip to Kendall, NSW, where I attended the finals of the Kendall National Violin Competition (hereafter KNVC). Despite its setting in a quiet rural town, the KNVC is nevertheless one of the most prestigious in Australia, and attracts the best young violinists from around the country.


Click on the image to view in Google maps

Continue reading