One Is the Hardest Number

Now that my compositional obligations for my MPhil work at Brunel are complete, I’ve been tooling away at a new piece for solo piano. This is a piñata I swat at every couple of years without yet tasting the sweet candy of success. My first effort, from 2003 or so, was a typically undergraduate experiment; my second, from 2006, was an improvement, but its technical and technological demands probably suffer from diminishing returns. (Anyone who wants to take a crack at it is welcome to, though!)

As the recent conversation here about solo woodwind music attests, writing music for just one instrument is difficult. If that instrument happens to be a piano, the task becomes yet more difficult in specific new ways: severely limited access to microtones and timbres, some of the best solo music ever written for any instrument as competition, etc. It’s almost like a piano piece is an abstraction of a piece of music: Because the sound-world is so finite—more finite, I’d argue, than a solo woodwind piece—the “nouns” of the piece are almost necessarily obligated to be signifying stand-ins; there’s just no material you can play on the equal-tempered piano in 2009 that’s immanently radical. It’s up to the piece’s “verbs” to advance its argument. This is why, as one of my teachers claimed some time ago, a piano piece is nothing but structure. The things themselves are just monochromatic place-holders, so the disposition and arrangement of those things in time are what counts.

So it’s a tough nut to crack. But at the same time, it’s a great exercise in craft, because if the composer’s job isn’t to dispose and arrange musical events in time in a meaningful way, then what is it? Besides, the latter challenge I mentioned above—the crowded field of great solo piano literature—is by no means a complete disadvantage. Writing for the piano is a great way to grapple with the last 200 years of Western music, an area of human endeavor that—if one were metonymically inclined—could be taken to represent the whole of Western culture during that time. I tried to account for this pride of place, unique to the piano, in my earlier efforts; this new piece will give me a chance to try my hand once again.

3 thoughts on “One Is the Hardest Number

  1. eaj

    It’s almost like a piano piece is an abstraction of a piece of music: Because the sound-world is so finite—more finite, I’d argue, than a solo woodwind piece—the “nouns” of the piece are almost necessarily obligated to be signifying stand-ins; there’s just no material you can play on the equal-tempered piano in 2009 that’s immanently radical. It’s up to the piece’s “verbs” to advance its argument. This is why, as one of my teachers claimed some time ago, a piano piece is nothing but structure. The things themselves are just monochromatic place-holders, so the disposition and arrangement of those things in time are what counts.

    There’s no reason piano music has to be all about undifferentiated pitches and rhythms!! There are hammers, and catches, and pedals, and fingers, and elbows, and a pianist that must breathe, and inaubility, and ancillary noise.

    If you want them.

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  2. colin holter

    There’s no reason piano music has to be all about undifferentiated pitches and rhythms!! There are hammers, and catches, and pedals, and fingers, and elbows, and a pianist that must breathe, and inaubility, and ancillary noise.

    That is 100% true. (This might be a good time to mention Cornelius Schwehr’s Do you know what it means to miss…, a piece that avails itself of the features eaj enumerates in service, more or less, of the goals I mentioned in my last paragraph.) It’s not really where my music is heading, but I’m glad you offered this disclaimer.

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  3. jbunch

    yeah well…
    You know, the piano has a lot of very different timbres/techniques to offer (some subtle, some not). In terms of hitting keys, the register, the speed of attack, how you release the pitch, weather you hold the key down or not, the wealth of sound possibilities offered by creative pedaling (micro-managing resonances if you wish), mixing articulations into a single attack, releasing members of a chord at different times, etc. Outside of the normal playing approaches, the world of prepared piano research/creativity has not nearly been exhausted, and there are mounds of objects to rub, strike, excite, pluck etc. inside the piano in ways that neither Crumb nor Lachenmann have done yet.

    But you’re very right to say that you can’t treat sonic modes of production as stand ins for relations between reified arrangements of phenomena, but this is always the case and not especially true for the piano alone. Maybe it’s easier to get away with such thoughtlessness with an ensemble of suling, electric violin, thai gongs, flowerpots, sirens, and Farfisa organ – but that doesn’t help music or you as an artist really – unless of course you are making the express point that reified structural phenomena are less interesting to you than absurd sound colors. If that’s the case, maybe you just shouldn’t write for the piano?

    hmmm….I think I want to write a piece for suling, electric violin, thai gongs, flowerpots, sirens, and a Farfisa organ…it’ll be the new Pierrot ensemble…

    jimmy

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