PIANO WORKS (2021–2023)
See EP (2023) for the evolution of this project.
The ideas in this set have occupied me in some form for the duration of my time as a composer endeavours. In 2021 I started to write for the piano with increasing frequency and found that, at this stage in my career, for various reasons the ability to write, perform and record music for myself without needing to rely on funding, equipment or other outside support held significant appeal. As my ideas for planned pieces began to grow, I saw that the common strands between them held potential for a full programme, and completion of this project is now my main area of focus.
The intention is to perform or even tour these pieces as a full set, though through work on them I am growing as a composer and performer meaning that the development stage is itself an inherently valuable endeavour.
A late addition to the set. The opening piece of the programme features some of the structural techniques I developed in planning for Struggle and makes stark use of the Chopin-esque A-B-A format (see the F major nocturne and ballade) I sort of had in mind for Allargando (though that piece was ultimately binary rather than ternary) where the B section is a wild tempestuous episode that yields to the placidity of the A section.
06/07 - A-section is almost complete. First image below shows the harmonic structure I devised. I'm a big of fan of forms of a 'circular' nature, or ones that are 'closed' in that it is possible to reach the starting point by following a sequence and have a clear and logical end point. Here, partly as a result of being fresh off composing my Song Without Words and partly arbitrarily due to the ideas slapped together in the voice notes below (all my ideas for the A-section just so happen to be separated by a major third), I've revisited mediant modulations and devised a structure that moves by thirds, but with a difference: the key that is reached as a result of these modulatory slip-n-slides is a semitone higher than the one before it, a rise that has its own particular aural effect. Important, I think, is that this happens without it sounding too 'weird'. G minor to G-sharp minor, for example (the first modulation in the sequence), is achieved through the use of only three chords, yet doesn't contain any single particularly abrupt shift. G minor to B major does sound weird, but G minor to Eb minor is less weird, while Eb minor to B major is of course entirely tonally cromulent. There is a kind of illusory transitivity between the outer chords, to borrow a rather handsome phrase from Umberto Eco.
The outline shows that I mostly cycle through keys by using a minor iv chord as a pivot (a bit of variation in the middle breaks up what would become a rather predictable sequence and has the more complicated function of helping the sequence to end where I wanted it to). Though it doesn't make strict tonal sense, it has the charm of sounding either more or less of an abrupt shift depending on the harmonic choices I make around it. With this as my frame I crudely inflicted a serviceable sequence of narrative shifts on to it and made my compositional choices accordingly.
I've used the technique I developed in Struggle Phase 1 below of offsetting an irregular metre(s) with one in strict 4/4. The second image below shows the outline at that stage. Lower staff shows the 4/4 metre (apologies for poor beaming, it's the result of copy and pasting), while the middle staff shows the beginning of my work writing the left-hand part. That rhythmic motif will feature throughout.
The B-section—in the a riff on the old contrast shtick I used in Perpetually Receding Horizon below—will be composed mostly through improvisation so that it retains that feel while being performed.
20/07 - A-section has been finished for quite a while, but it's far too good for me to sit on. While I'm learning it, here is a placeholder MIDI recording (I played the intro. This will be the first thing I play when I walk on stage to perform this stuff in the future, so I wanted something that would allow me test the piano out and give me an opportunity to get rid of my nerves. That's how far ahead I'm thinking).
22/02 - I've had occasional opportunities to get stuck back into Innoculum but the B-section is still eluding me. When I do it, I'm going to have to go all in. I'm seeing that it can't just be improvised and it's going to have to be very detailed and make heavy use of technique to be convincing. When the time comes to finish it, I'll have to make it my obsession and spend days on it until it's done. I'm trying to create a 'rising' tremolo, so I need to figure out some intersection between note sequences that create the sound I want doable hand position movements. I'll need three layers: the low rumble and the arpeggio that starts the section and has to continue running throughout, and the high chords. Then I need to figure out how to create that convincing 'end' point given that it's chromatic, and decide which key the reprise is in.
I'm adding an update to this because, following the recording of Struggle Prelude in January, a lot of things have been cast into doubt. I'm feeling a bit doom about everything musical and non-musical at the moment and don't have the mental resources and fortitude to compose as I was last year. When I am able to start again, I want to make this and Retribution V (see Retribution III section below) my priority. The reason for that is I believe that those two along with Struggle Prelude would make a very, very good short programme. The recording session for the latter made me realise that, as long as I'm properly practiced, I probably could perform to a modestly-sized group of people. Those three pieces, possibly a couple of shorter ones thrown in as well, would make a strong EP and a filmed performance would be a massive step in helping people understand my vision and and what the album could be.
Perpetually Receding Horizon
I’m slightly obsessed with Takemitsu’s Romance for piano, and wanted to do something that would allow me to spend some extended time in that sound world.
At the same time, I wanted it to be big, and it seemed like a good opportunity to do what I had done only in student pieces until then and contrast not just texture, motifs and/or style between sections, but of compositional techniques and indeed even musical ideological bases. I had in mind something that would flick between sections and material without much regard really for how they fit together, eschewing the balance and cohesiveness I usually labour over. I had in mind a semi-improvisational section, perhaps with just an instruction-based score, offset against a rigorously mechanical, fully-scored section with a clearly unfolding audible process a la Glass’ Music in Fifths.
I was interested in the effect this would have on a performer, as there is a mental shift that takes place when switching between scores that are ‘transactional’ and require input and improvisation (I’m suggesting here that fully-scored music requires no input from the performer but humour me for the sake of this piece) and ones that can be fully sight-read, and thought that having it take place within a single piece was an interesting basis for a composition.
In the end, I had to trade some of the loftier ideas I had for it for the more favourable fact of it being finished. The score retains something of the improvisational instructions I had in mind, though not to the extent I would have liked (the score was supposed to be a part of the composition, not just a piece of accompanying material, but is now largely conventional). I wasn’t able to develop the compositional system I had in mind for the mechanical section (I was sure there was a way I could serialise all of the semitones contained in the pentatonic scale I’m using in a way that would still sound Takemitsu-esque, but wasn’t able to get there), but I did compose something that sounds ‘process-y’, if you see what I’m getting at with that word.