David Rakowski: The Piano Etude Guy

Frank J. Oteri: You claim on your website that you’re not the self-promoting type, so you must be really nervous right now.

David Rakowski: Yeah, extremely. Can’t you tell?

FJO: But it’s odd because your website is also one of the most thorough repositories of information I’ve ever seen for a composer. People can even look at some of your elementary school homework assignments! I usually make it a point to read and listen to everything out there before I talk to someone, but I must confess I haven’t gotten through all that’s there yet.

DR: That would take forever.

FJO: What made you decide to be so open about yourself on this website?

DR: I just wanted it to be a lot different from other composer websites, a lot of which are very, very serious. They look almost corporate. I just wanted something that was more like me, more informal. And every once in a while I think of something really, really funny, and then I put up another page. I thought about the buttstix, and I put that up. Everyone knows about the buttstix, right?

FJO: The day we discovered that page, we basically accomplished nothing for the next hour except for reading them and laughing hysterically and forwarding it to as many people as we possibly could. I assume the buttstix grew out of comments made by students in your composition classroom.

DR: Both the composition classroom and just going to various concerts and seeing people stuck in the same rut. We have the expression, “God, he’s got such a big stick up his butt about that.” And so, it just occurred to me; Wait a minute, what if I was literal about that? What would that look like? And I realized I had sticks up my butt, too. What are the buttstix I’ve got? I relived all my compositional training and all the stuff we talked about when we were trying to make it. One of the most interesting things about after you’ve done all of your schooling is taking those sticks out: declaring independence from a teacher, independence from a school, independence from things that you’ve been told are good and finding new things to do. In order to do that, you have to step back and say: Well, it’s O.K. to use a pulse or to have regular bar lines—things that were pretty much shunned when I was in graduate school. (One says: “Shun vernacular music.”) But it’s O.K. to do quotes from pop music, and so forth. It’s very liberating to do that, but it’s even more liberating to identify the buttstix and turn them into a joke.

FJO: So the buttstix listed on your webpage are the ones you felt you had?

DR: The ones that I felt I had or ones that people tried to give me and that came out. Every once in awhile, I think of another one. We’re in iteration number five now. When I think of another one, I take a new picture of all the buttstix.

FJO: So if people want to trace your stylistic evolution and development, all they’d have to do is look at the different iterations of these buttstix. But I can’t find the older iterations on the website.

DR: They’re no longer there. The most recent butt stick I put on there was “minimalism is bad.”

FJO: So does that mean you’re now writing minimalist music?

DR: I actually am using some minimalist things in my music. I’ll just leave it at that. And when I thought of “sevenths and ninths are yummy,” I just had to do that one, too.

FJO: Aside from the buttstix, there’s tons of actual music on the site. Where do you find the time to write all this stuff?

DR: Well, I have my summers. And I do take off a semester from school whenever I can, either as a regular sabbatical or as an unpaid leave. Those we have to plan for, obviously, because of financial reasons. But if I’ve got some big projects to do, I’ll just take some time off. Meanwhile, the reason there are so many piano etudes is that I need extended time for bigger pieces—those are done during vacations, especially summer vacations or during leave. But I limit working on a piano etude to six days. If I’ve got an idea for one, or if someone asks for one, I can usually do them on weekends or on a little week vacation that we might have in the middle of a semester. They went from being little respites in between pieces to things I can now do because I’ve got a whole bunch of them and they can join a group that already exists. Peters has been very generous about taking them. They say they do well. And I’m always getting e-mails from pianists with ideas for etudes: sometimes really silly things, sometimes very mundane things. It’s usually the silly ones that I like.

Strangely enough, when I’m ready to write an etude, I often ask the writer Rick Moody, whom I know from Yaddo, “Do you have an idea for an etude?” And it’ll be really weird and it’ll just be so cool that I’ll just take up the idea and do it. Once, when I was looking for an idea, he said, “Do an etude on Tower of Power licks.” And I said, “There’s probably a copyright problem with that, but I could do a generically funk etude.” So I did. Another time he said, “You can write that atonal stuff just fine, but could you write something with just major triads?” And so I wrote one that’s just major triads. And you realize, when you write with just major triads, that it’s really nice to have minor and diminished and augmented triads. When you’re trying to get something that’s got a shape, using only the same triad over and over again really limits your possibilities. I like being limited like that because you have to use ingenuity and to be ingenious to get them to work.

FJO: Next year is going to be the 20th anniversary of the first etude, and I know you love numbers as much as I do.

DR: It’s my 50th birthday next year.

FJO: That’s right!

DR: Where are all the celebrations? Anyway.

FJO: You started writing piano etudes when you were 30, but you didn’t realize you had started this. It was a side thing you did in between projects. But I dare say, even though you are known for other things, in a lot of people’s minds, you’re now the piano etude guy.

DR: Yeah. Unfortunately. I think of the piano etudes as being fairly light compared to the other stuff that I do. One signal that they’re fairly light is that a lot of them have really silly titles. Still pianists like to play them. A lot of pianists are taking them. I guess they’re pianistic. While we’re talking about numbers, I think I’m going to end with 100 piano etudes. I’m not going to go above 100 because I can’t imagine anyone playing piano etude number 101. But I’ll be the first in line to go to a concert of all hundred of my piano etudes.

FJO: They’re almost a contemporary music version of Domenico Scarlatti’s 555 esercizi. Lots of harpsichordists tried doing all of those. Only one succeeded, but he died as soon as finished recording the whole cycle.

DR: Well, in that case, maybe I’ll do 300.

FJO: But you’re not even really a pianist.

DR: No, I can’t play these things. I do make sure that in every book of ten there’s one that I can play, and those are the really simple ones—like the little triad one or the really slow spacey one. But I’m not a pianist. It’s one reason I’ve never written a big piano piece. I’m really not sure what to do with a piano over a 20-minute span. But I can come up with a few ideas. I can concentrate them over two or three minutes, and I have fun doing it. And every once in a while, a pianist will have fun playing what I’ve written. But I’m completely dependent on other pianists.

FJO: Amy Dissanayke has already recorded two full CDs of them.

DR: 46 etudes.

FJO: Is she going to do the rest?

DR: Yes, next June 2, 3, and 4, she’s recording up to number 70. That’ll make 70. So that’s another 24 she’s learning. And then I guess we’ll seek funding to do more when enough exist to do another CD.

FJO: One unusual aspect of her recordings of these etudes is that she doesn’t play them in order.

DR: No, she likes to actually create programs that have some sort of arc. She usually does them in groups that are sort of like four-movement suites. A fast one, a slower one, a funny one, and a really fast one is what she tends to do. The first time I was ever exposed to a concert of nothing but my music, it was Amy doing piano etudes. The groups seemed to work as pieces. But they weren’t intended to work as pieces in that order. I was surprised that I actually thought it was satisfying to listen to my pieces one after another. And so were other people, I guess.

When Amy was learning the etudes for the first volume, she was playing them all over the place. And I was going wherever she was playing and doing a shpiel before each set of four. At the beginning of the second half, I would always say, “I’m always looking for ideas for new etudes, so if any of you have ideas, come up to me afterwards and tell me what you’ve got.” And there was this one charming older man who said “I have a great idea: The piano is only played in the lowest octave and in the highest octave. And it’s called Brahms because he got fat and that’s all he could reach.” I don’t think I’m going to write that one. I actually have thought of what I could do for that kind of a piece, but I wouldn’t call it Brahms. But, OK, now maybe I will do it, now that I brought it up.

FJO: You mentioned in something I read somewhere that the four composers who had the most influence on you were Brahms, Berg, Bartók, and Martino: three Bs and an M.

DR: There is a Brahms connection: I love the late piano music. The way he gets from place to place is just amazing—it works every time. You can look at it at every level and there’s always something that comes out as being something very important. Plus the way he uses piano textures. I learned a lot about crafting piano textures that are more that simply Alberti basses or the things that I can play.

As to Martino, I listened to him all the time when I was an undergraduate. He was the chair of the composition department at NEC. When I heard Notturno, I was floored. When I heard the Triple Concerto, I was floored. What I took out of that was simply the way he combined instruments. He had really complicated things on the surface express things that were really a lot simpler in terms of the way they were moving. And he used tone color and space and rhythm and articulation in ways that just were very interesting to me.

And Berg. Oh God. My first year of graduate school at Princeton, Lulu was getting its New York premiere. Boulez was doing it and Claudio Spies at Princeton had a way of getting students in to see the rehearsals. I hadn’t heard very much Berg before actually. I heard a lot of Wozzeck, but I hadn’t heard it in years and I didn’t know Lulu at all. I went along with other graduate students, maybe five or six rehearsals, and it just kept getting better. Then we went to the dress rehearsal and at the very end none of us could really move because it was so moving. We then convened a seminar on Lulu with the newly-restored third act. I came away with a feeling and a way of understanding this kind of weird-ass atonal music that I was writing, a way of making it make more sense because of the way that Berg works with layers, especially the way he works with voice leading and the relationship of a whole bunch of stuff to a bass.

I spent at least ten years trying to write Lulu Two. All of my pieces were very, very much out of Berg for a long time. (I finally broke free of that after maybe 10 or 12 years.) I wrote my first symphony which was premiered at Columbia’s Miller Theatre—I was teaching at Columbia at the time as well—and all my students said, “It’s Berg’s Third Symphony. Great, what are you going to do next?” Who else did I say?

FJO: Bartók, but before you get to him, let’s stay with Berg a little bit longer. You claim that Lulu was such a big influence on you, but you’ve never written an opera.

DR: No. In fact, I’ve told my friends that if I ever tell them that I’m going to write an opera to please come and shoot me and that I’d give them the gun. Friends of mine—like Daron Hagen—write operas, so I know you have to give up a lot of control. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on in writing an opera that I don’t think I could deal with. I’m interested in writing vocal music and I’m interested in anything that’s dramatic, but I’m not interested in writing an opera. I might actually change my mind when I retire or something like that, but right now, no.

FJO: Do you have issues with the form in terms of narrating a story, having people sing the story that way? Is it believable to you?

DR: It is believable to me. Lulu and Wozzeck and all the Mozart operas are all believable and very beautiful. But I just don’t think I can, could, or want to spend that long writing something and then lose so much control when it comes to fruition. And I don’t think I’m very good at promoting myself, obviously, and I wouldn’t know how to promote an opera, even if I just wrote it on spec.

FJO: O.K., fair enough. What about Bartók?

DR: Well, with Bartók, it’s definitely the rhythm—downbeat, syncopation, and especially bar length—to make things very exciting. And the way he uses scales—something I never felt I was allowed to do when I was a graduate student because it felt so mundane. I used really complicated scales that change in every octave. So it’s the rhythm for Bartók, the piano textures from Brahms, and the way all the layers relate from Berg, and the way instruments are used and how gestures interlock from Martino. I never thought of it that way before. Someone should write a paper about that.

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