C. Curtis-Smith is a Washington-state native now teaching at Western Michigan University. He has received over a hundred grants, awards, and commissions in the course of his career, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Koussevitsky Prize at Tanglewood, and 23 consecutive Standard Awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers.
Mr. Curtis-Smith submitted a set of Four Etudes, ranging, he says, from “dark (and) erratically capricious” to “bright (and) lilting.” The four etudes are extracted from a complete set of twelve, seven of which were premiered by pianist Lori Sims at Alice Tully Hall in September 2000.
The first etude (of both the Van Cliburn and the complete set) is called “Chords in Canon.” As is suggested by the title, the etude includes some strict canon, with chords being used in place of a monophonic line. The canon begins at a fairly close time interval – three sixteenth notes – that is later further compressed, in a stretto-like section, into a single sixteenth-note.
The second etude (in the Van Cliburn set) is marked Grave, and it is a study in “violent contrasts of dynamics and touch, and rapid shifts of register.” In certain passages, according to the composer, “three widely separated layers of sound are juggled simultaneously, resulting in orchestral sonorities.” To achieve these sonorities, precisely timed use of the damper pedal is crucial. Curtis-Smith even goes so far as to notate the pedaling rhythmically, sometimes down to the exact eighth or sixteenth note. “It’s a big piece, not so much in length as in orchestral breadth. It should be cataclysmic in its net effect,” Curtis-Smith noted.
The third etude is marked “Ironic.” It is a study in the independence of the hands. “When I was a little kid practicing scales, I got tired of practicing in rhythmic unison,” Curtis-Smith explained. “I tried practicing in [polyrhythms such as] two-against-three, and finally, in my experimentation, I tried keeping the left hand even, and speeding the right hand up and slowing it down in an irrational way. Sometimes I did the opposite. It took me all these years to put that concept into a piece.” Though the scales have disappeared, what remains from his childhood games is the practice of keeping the left hand absolutely steady while the right hand accelerates and decelerates.
In the fourth etude in the Van Cliburn set, Curtis-Smith transforms the rhythmic play of the previous etude into something “very bright and flowing.” “It is beautiful in its surface sound, and though all of the etudes can be thought of as tonal, this is the most overtly tonal of the set.” The etude is in B-flat major, with a middle section in D-flat. The etude focuses on the “independent rubato” of the right hand. While the speeding up and slowing down of the right hand in the third etude necessitated the use of “feathered beams,” the rubato in the fourth etude is subtle enough to be notated “normally” as two against three, nine against five, and so forth. “The fourth etude represents a very pleasant resolution of the harmonic and rhythmic tensions of the third,” Curtis-Smith stated.
Curtis-Smith has an extensive background as a pianist. He has appeared in recital at the National Gallery and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and has performed with the Seattle and Indianapolis Symphonies. Mr. Curtis-Smith has also premiered three of William Bolcom‘s Pulitzer Prize winning Twelve New Etudes. “My own pianistic abilities have affected my writing to a great extent,” he admits. The composer himself has recorded all twelve etudes, and the CD, on the Albany label, is due out in September.
The complete set of etudes, which lasts forty minutes, were written on a Faculty Research and Creative Activities and Support Fund grant from Western Michigan University. It is the first solo piano music that he has written since his left-hand piano concerto for Leon Fleisher ten years ago. “Because of commissions that always seemed to take the shape of chamber music or a symphonic piece, until the etudes I hadn’t had the opportunity to write solo piano music,” Curtis-Smith explained.
The composer thinks of the twelve etudes as a “suite of twelve movements, rather than a loose anthology.” This does not preclude the pianist from playing the etudes in smaller groups, however. The composer is well aware of the significance of the number twelve when it comes to piano etudes. “At first I was going to write six, I thought that would be enough of an accomplishment,” he laughed. “But eventually there seemed to be enough ideas for a seventh, and then an eighth. Finally there were twelve, and I liked that hooking back into tradition.”