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.