LAMENT/ARENA #3 (2023)
These two pieces marked a bit of a compositional turning point. Though I've of course written plenty of piano pieces before, these two pretty much came from single improvisations, and having now worked in this way I think I can say for certain that improvisation is the dark matter that explains the existence of many of those works of impossible imagination and complexity.
Improvisation's place in the 'Classical' world is of course a subject ripe with opportunities to use of the word 'akshually'. Many improvising musicians will lament the stuffy demands of their early piano teachers to reproduce Bach and Beethoven mechanically from the page, perhaps placing this experience centrally in their jazz origin myth. Others will note that akshually those composers were master improvisers and improvisation was as an important part of that world as composing itself right until around the twentieth century.
Both things are right. Here is Bill Evans lamenting that despite being a skilled Classical pianist he nevertheless didn't feel able to sit at a piano and play without having something prepared. Still, if you look at a concert programme from the eighteenth or nineteenth century you'll probably see that improvisation/extemporaneous playing featured in there somewhere. Here's a fun story about Mendelssohn meeting and improvising for Queen Victoria, Bach supposedly improvised this fugue as part of an audition, and so on.
Anyway, my point is, whatever our approach to learning this music now, its creation was dependent on musicians with technical instrumental abilities of such extraordinary levels that they could translate ideas into sound with more ease and fluency than is possible without it. The two are inseparable. I think I can see now how, by way of example, Chopin's D-flat Nocturne might have come into existence when looking at it on the page alone leads you to ask what the FUCK is going on.
A dense black page, and attempting to analyse it armed with what you thought was a fairly solid understanding of theory and form only complicates things further. But my guess now is that the wild modulations and stuff that doesn't appear to be based in anything you could have learned in a theory text book and doesn't really make any logical sense but works anyway are all things that are possible because this piece is at least partly transcribed from an improvisation or improvisations.
Things sometimes make more sense when you're not trying to work backwards from the music itself. Analysis is in essence an attempt to understand the overarching structure of a piece, but music flows more freely from that structure than it will fit itself neatly back into it. That enigma—the 'idea'—is the generative force, and everything that comes from it makes perfect sense in the moment. It is the direct or indirect ancestor of everything that results from attempting to serve it, and once it evaporates you're very possibly left with a web of stuff that feels coherent in some way but doesn't appear to have any kind of obviously neat, overt, overarching structure. In the case of the Nocturne, the form is there—you could lay an ABA form structure over it—but, though helpful as a starting point for analysis or memorisation, doing so feels a bit barbaric. Sections are not clearly delineated as they might be in a Baroque piece, it flows too fluidly to mark any material as merely 'transitional' or subordinate to what is happening inland in each section. The proportions are strange, repetition and variation are not mere academic embellishments. Yet every choice is the correct choice for the piece. There are some things that are better worked out intellectually (definitely your counterpoint, for example, unless you're Bach and your instrumental mastery is such that you can bring that fugue into existence instantaneously), but I do think you have a better ear for things like balance instinctually, so decisions on that front always feel more convincing when they were made in the moment rather than through attempts to weave it in retroactively.
In the moment, when you're playing, stuff can just happen, and something that note-to-note could be quite complicated or difficult to explain on paper makes sense either because it came from a single idea that made it and everything else make sense, or because it was an accident, or because it just sounded good, or for some other reason. Working from improvisation can allow you to do things that are greater than the sum of your abilities, and with these pieces I've experimented with remaining almost totally faithful to a couple of improvisations I rattled off without really thinking about them too much. I've done some tidying up where necessary and made changes where I thought it obviously necessary for clarity, but I've resisted the urge to impose too much 'logic' on to them. The little test here is to see what happens if I place faith in the idea that, in the moment, I was attempting to serve something that is now absent in the music itself, a Platonic ideal of the piece that I could have divined and captured were I more technically capable at the piano. I've ceded decision-making authority to my past self and trusted that the choices I made partly automatically and partly instinctually are 'correct' in the sense that they served that now missing idea.
A little mystical perhaps, but I think about this Miyazaki quote I wrote down a while ago a lot. He said there are more profound things than simply logic that guide the creation of the story, and there's something that will take your creative work to the next level if you combine it with your solid technical abilities.
Obviously, I'm saying nothing groundbreaking here and could have come to the same realisations by spending some time with my textbooks (in fact my eyes have probably skipped over this information plenty of times already), but, as I've said elsewhere, it's far more rewarding to come to these realisations on your own. You have to learn the right lessons at the right time.
This one gestated for about a year before I even realised it was a viable piece of music. In the same long improvisation that some of the ideas for Retribution V came from, I started playing around with I thought was the diminished scale I had recently learned about. I thought it was possible to alternate between a diminished and augmented chord based on the first degree of the scale, but in fact I hadn't memorised the scale properly so what I was actually doing throughout was switching between the diminished and altered scale.
It sounds a bit horrific on first (and maybe second and third and fourth) listen but you'll have to take my word for it that after a while it becomes almost disgustingly catchy. It's such a bizarre sound world and so unlike anything I'd made before that I kept listening to it out of sick fascination. After doing that for a while I began to see that it is, actually, rather good thank you very much.
I don't really know what's going on and neither do I mean to find out. I suppose the bit at the start comes back in various guises, so there's some thematic repetition, but it just works. It's a bit episodic maybe. The move to B major in particular is a highlight (you'll know it when you hear it), but I made the creative choice to be a bit brutal with the brief respite and threat of sentimentality by not staying there too long. The ending was composed and added totally in the transcription stage, but I suppose it could end perfectly well after it slows down and goes to those spaced out chords. I was so enjoying being in the sound world that I wanted to cap it off with something even more disgusting and jagged and acerbic. It was an artistic necessity.
It gets addictive the more you listen to it. It is a bit disgusting, which is cool. It'll probably make you make that face, which is also cool.
The big breakthrough I made with this piece war discovering fully how rewarding modal interchange feels (i.e. repeating something in a different scale or mode). I think the highlight of the entire piece might be that bit in b. 97 where the B major motif is gently, ambiguously reharmonised to sound like it's in the diminished scale and the move back to the weirder stuff starts. Just like that, by accident, I've gone jazz. I think finding language and meaning in what I'll call weird shit is one of the satisfying things that can happen if you're trying to get your kicks from being a composer. Something I like to do for thrills is try and make things that are hideous and make no sense make coherent sense inside a piece. That chord in b. 107 is a good example (play it in isolation and wince) and I put a sickening chord in b. 58 of Perpetually Receding Horizon that on its own appears to be an upsetting hodgepodge of neighbouring notes but which actually makes perfect sense in its place in the piece.
I recorded this piece at Clod Studios in Greenwich on 13/12/2023. Between starting to notate it and recording it there was just over a month, which is the fastest I've ever worked.
I'm currently notating this one with the goal of making it my next recording. The improvisation wasn't quite as finished as the one for Lament was so I have more decisions to make about structure. The process in this case is one of refining and chipping away until the piece emerges. Everything I need is in the below recording, it just needs to be extracted.
I struggled with a title for this one as it doesn't really fit into any of the other groups of pieces I have. Equally, I didn't want to overstate its depth by giving it a Classical-form title (though really Impromptu or Fantasy would have been accurate descriptions), and I've become a bit queasy about your standard new-agey type piano-piece titles that are either a cool word or something about forests and nature (seriously, I'm not joking. Go to Spotify, search 'piano', open the first playlist that comes up and tell me I'm wrong. The absolute poverty of imagination of people trying to do something with this instrument is the crevice of opportunity I will crawl into to exploit and unpack my bags) that ultimately have nothing to do with the music itself.
In the end I've tacked it on to the end of a pair pieces that will appear at some point this year. My mission has always been to make sure I'm using more of the piano's capabilities than simply its capacity for melody and accompaniment. It is, after all, a percussion instrument. After looking back on what I've written and recorded so far I can see that I haven't really fulfilled this expectation yet, so those two pieces were written expressly as opportunities to focus less on memorisation and accurate representation of a score and more on the physical experience of performing. While this piece doesn't quite meet the criteria, the second half with those big loud chords is very much in the spirit of what I wanted to accomplish, so maybe it will be more like the special DVD bonus features of the other two or maybe it will get a new title at some point.