Tag Archives: composition and composers

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


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:


Contests should be for all composers, not just ‘young’ ones



Consider this an additional composer’s rant to go along with the one I wrote a few days ago.

I enjoy getting my monthly issue of Sounding Board from theAmerican Composers Forum in the mail, and I also like going to the site and seeing what’s up. One of the most important things, of course, is the list of opportunities it offers for composers, contests here at home and abroad for new music needed by all sorts of enembles and individuals.

Here’s the thing: Many of these opportunities are restricted to younger composers, from grade school on up to writers aged 40. Now, I don’t have a problem with competitions and the like for really young composers, kids in elementary, junior high (we didn’t call it middle school in the Midwest) and high school, even undergraduates in college. I doubt I would have pursued any compositional ambition without the encouragement of a program for kid composers in my elementary school.

But when it comes to anything past undergrad, forget it. By that point, it’s time to take your shot with everyone else out here, not get some special treatment from some contest that is only giving out money to younger people. And the whole idea of younger in some of these contests is silly: Composers aged 40 and younger, composers aged 35 and younger.

35? 40? That’s younger? Schubert, Bellini, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Bizet: Not one of those guys saw 40, and two of them didn’t even make 35. I think we can safely say they still made a substantial contribution, and not because they won contests for their age group, either. They just went out and did it.

Yes, on the one hand you can’t compare the late 18th through the late 19th century with our time. People didn’t live as long, there weren’t huge industries devoted to electronic distraction, the music-publishing industry was much more prominent. But younger people jump out there in popular music all the time, and when we hear songs by rappers and rock bands, we don’t usually take a moment to note that these things were written mostly by people in their 20s.

As a man of 48 (as of last Sunday), I’m a little annoyed that so much good money is sitting around waiting to go to younger composers, perhaps in the mistaken belief that this is the only age at which they can emerge into a career, perhaps because of a practical consideration that if too many nearly old guys like me apply for recognition, there will be too many scores to look through. Then again, these competitions want desperately to say they discovered young Beethoven, which is marketing you can’t beat.

But the thing to remember is that music is music whatever the provenance, and if you’re a composition prize organization with some cash you want to offer to some composers, unless it’s a program truly for children, let us all have a chance to win something.

Anyone 21 and over has to fight it out with the rest of us; if it’s any good you’ll be on your way whatever the competition. Great music will out regardless, and those of us who probably won’t win will at least have the satisfaction of knowing someone gave us an ear or two despite that, being over 40, we were so obviously well past the point of making a career of it.

I am fat, aging, much too hairy, and I don’t have a large work-list of compositions. And yet, I emerge.

It’s time to stop setting aside perfectly good composition money for younger people just because they’re younger. It will make no difference to the world of music in the long run: If you are meant to be a composer, you’re going to be a composer anyway, and the world will judge your work. 

It might even make you better, having to compete with all of us instead of just people in a smaller peer group.