Tag Archives: composition

The challenge of really writing small

If you know where to look, there are no end to the contests and other challenges offered to composers by way of the Internet.

My current interest is in the three miniaturist ensembles — New York, Vancouver and Chicago — that have Websites and an open call to write pieces for them. The trick is that each piece must be no more than 100 notes. It’s fascinating to see how fast you can use up that quantity of notes when you’re not really paying attention.

I’ve written a couple things under this stricture, and I find it liberating. It forces you to think very carefully about every single note, and exactly what kind of effect you’re trying to create. Many of the pieces that have been posted on the sites are slow and atmospheric, with lots of silences. If you’re going to get only 100 notes, you might as well hang on to the stage as long as they’ll let you have it.

The ensembles also ask you to write for specific combinations of instruments, which makes things even more interesting. But it gets you back to the let’s-put-on-a-show mentality that it’s good for music to reconnect to. You’re away from home, you find some odd instruments in the attic, and you try to put together a band.

Some of the pieces on these sites are quite imaginative, and it’s interesting to just troll through them and see with what kind of infinite riches composers have been able to stock their little rooms. I think the goal is to make as much good music as you can in the tiny space, which reminds me of the old apercu of Georges Sand that there was more music in the C minor Prelude of Chopin than in all the pages of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots.

She wasn’t exactly a disinterested witness,  and there is some decent music in the Meyerbeer opera, but her point still stands: A piece of music, as long as it’s real music, doesn’t have to be long and elaborate to make an impact.

Making peace, at last, with the piano

In the nearly four weeks since taking my buyout I’ve been busily working on my music. In that time, I’ve managed to finish four pieces that have been sitting for months on my desk half-dressed.

Several other musical projects, long shelved, are now moving into my active space once again, and yesterday I learned again the old composers’ dictum that there’s nothing harder than writing for your own instrument.

I have the same kind of relationship with my piano that many millions of people do. It has been a presence in my life literally as long as I can remember, and while I cherish the continual enjoyment I get out of it, I have never truly become its friend, or its master.

Like a failed friendship, I have never given it the time it required for me to really listen to it or understand it, and like a failed ruler, I have not paid enough attention to detail to notice how my power was built on shaky ground.

Which brings me to a piano sonata I sketched late last year for a pianist who asked me whether I could send him something. Now that I have time to write it, and I was hard at revising the first movement yesterday, I find that approaching the piano as a solo instrument allows me to look at it in a fresh light.

I’m listening to the instrument differently than I have for a long time, and while it’s proven to be good exercise as I work out the specific sound of my piece, it also has shed unwanted attention on my years of — well, less than scrupulous attention to how to play the damn thing. (Here’s a blurry picture of one of our cats, Orange, sitting on my piano bench. Heck, I wasn’t using it.)

Put more bluntly, I have been faking it for so long that I don’t know whether I will ever be able to play it as well as I could. The piano is an ideal faking instrument; like the guitar, you need only know a few basic things, be able to get from point A to point B, and voila, Instant Musician.

But it’s really so much harder than that to truly play well. I am reminded of a Samuel Lipman essay about his own piano practice in which one of his teachers told him that his playing was like yesterday’s shirt: Not noticeably dirty, but also not noticeably clean.

What this comes down to, I realized as I tried out a tricky left-hand passage, is that I might actually have to practice, really practice, for the first time since I was in music school nearly 30 years ago. I still like to start the day with one of the preludes and fugues from each book of the Well-Tempered Clavier (in the key of the day, usually by circle of fifths), then follow that with the pair in the same key from the Shostakovich Op. 87 set (one of the composer’s greatest works, in any medium).

It’s good compositional training, and it keeps the fingers going, but it’s not really practicing — the painstaking working out of tough passages until you can get your muscles and brain to remember them — and what I need to do, finally, is practice.

I’ve been wearing yesterday’s shirt too long.

Here’s The Pianists section of the Carnival of the Animals, narrated by Roger Moore. The comedy is a little broad, but it’s a reminder of what’s to come in my house: