Vine’s first sonata, and the future of piano writing

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Earlier this month I attended a piano recital by Christopher Atzinger, at which the American pianist played for his encore the first movement of the Piano Sonata No. 1 of the Australian composer Carl Vine (at right).

I wasn’t familiar with Vine’s music, though there were some music lovers at the recital who were, and urged me to check out more of his work on the Net. And while I did enjoy the music, I found the sonata movement to be compelling more from the standpoint of what it represents than what it sounded like.

Because what it represents (like the Philip Lasser Bach variations featured on the Simone Dinnerstein disc I wrote about a while back)  is that there are still ways to write for the piano in our own time that are cogent and modern without being non-pianistic. Vine’s piece had plenty of bravura color and massive technical difficulties, but it also had a good contrasting section with a lonely melodic fragment wandering over big, jazz-influenced chords. It held together as a sonata movement, along the path adumbrated by Prokofiev and Barber, primarily, but still was recognizably a sonata movement.

One of the beauties of the old sonata form as handed down from Papa Haydn is that it gives music a narrative structure. That doesn’t mean today that we have contrasting themes in the dominant, or that there be any key centers at all, or that we start with a fast movement.

But there is something to be said about finding a useful way to organize musical thought, and in a time when much music of all stripes — pop, jazz, classical — seems to be about creating music that is about the effectiveness of a sound rather than the effectiveness of a melody, it bears remembering that many listeners have not yet caught up to the idea of enjoying music just as sonic wallpaper rather than argument, though that probably will happen one day.

The question of how to write for the piano these days has been much on my mind lately. The other day I finished a quick rewrite on a piano part for a simple holiday choral piece, and since that song is a very simple one, and written for reduced forces, it took a little bit of thought to come up with a part that would be interesting to hear, worth playing, and effective for the music.

But the piano sonata I’ve been writing and which I’ve not been able to get around to finishing, is another story entirely.  It seems to me that a good piece of American piano music ought to reflect somewhat the history of the way the piano has been played in modern times, and that means a lot of jazz players (Tatum, Monk, Brubeck, Peterson, etc.) and the much more primitive way it’s been played in pop and rock.

Maybe that’s writing music as commentary or history rather than music as music, but I’m hoping rather that it’s about writing music as contemporary music, tapping into the way the piano sounds to much of the audience.

Here’s the first movement of the Vine sonata, as played by a pianist named Joel Hastings:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCPrW-rO9nw&hl=en&fs=1&]

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