David Rakowski: The Piano Etude Guy

Frank J. Oteri: It makes sense that the movements of Cantina could be performed separately since it’s actually an orchestration of the piano etudes, each of which exists as a separate piece.

David Rakowski: That came from a conversation. I had a February vacation where I had four days with nothing planned and I didn’t have any ideas for piano etudes. My usual sources were dry, or they were on vacation, or they were not returning my e-mails. So I thought I would just go to a piano etude and write it for orchestra, just as practice for myself. I was teaching orchestration and I wanted to show what I would do if I were orchestrating something of my own. I started with number 51, Zipper Tango, putting little notes on the score saying “this will be played by, this will be played by” before I started putting it into a score. And I couldn’t hear the opening melody as anything but saxophone music. But I couldn’t justify putting a saxophone into an orchestra just for an etude arrangement. So I arranged it for band, since I have connections with a Marine band.

What you don’t know is the director of the Marine band, Michael Colburn, is from my home town. He is the son of my high school band director, and—another aside here—when I was a senior in college, he was a junior in high school, and I invited him to Boston just to give him a tour. Then years later, I heard from him with a letter saying, “Wanna write for the Marine band?” Anyway, so I did my four days orchestrating it for band. I had just finished hearing Ten of a Kind in the Swiss performance which sounded great, so I had the sound of band fresh in my ears. It felt natural to write for band at this point and I sent it to him. And he said, “This is really nice, but who’s going to play a three-minute band piece that’s actually an arrangement of a piano etude? Why don’t you find some more piano etudes and orchestrate those too?” And I said, “Well OK, which ones would you suggest?” There were only 60 at the time. My idea was four that worked with vernacular styles: I had a tango, a bop, a stride, and a Jerry Lee Lewis rock and roll type of number. I actually did the other orchestrations while we were in a cabin on vacation in Maine with friends. We tended to get up at seven, seven thirty in the morning; our friends got up at ten, so in the three hours in the morning, I just went, I did the orchestration directly on the computer in Finale and when I finished my vacation, I had a new piece, and they played it.

FJO: You chose those four etudes, I suppose, since you hadn’t written the funk etude yet.

DR: Yeah, the funk didn’t exist yet. I was thinking of calling him and asking him if I had to orchestrate the funk one now. I actually orchestrated the funk one for nine clarinets—contrabass, two bass, and six regular clarinets—because the contrabass clarinetist and the bass clarinetist who had played my piece in Marine band were retiring. This was a going away gift for them. They haven’t played it yet, and they’re retired. But now I have this strange arrangement of the funk etude for nine clarinets. It sounds as bizarre as you can imagine. By the way, a clarinetist in the band, Janie Pater, said the last movement of Ten of a Kind would work great for all clarinets. So I orchestrated that for 23 clarinets and one percussionist. It really sounds bizarre.

FJO: That’s the one called Martian Counterpoint, which is a really appropriate title!

DR: It’s about as zany a piece as you can imagine. They performed it in Baltimore a few years ago. All that stuff that was supposed to be great sounding with cup muted trumpets, when it sounds like clarinets, it sounds way different. It just sounds really stupid, in a good way. It sounds like the piece got really complicated and then it got really dumb.

FJO: Your wife is a clarinetist and also a composer.

DR: There’s a lot of clarinet in my music because I hear her practicing all the time. I can always bring parts to her and she can tell me it’s awkward, what I have to change, what won’t speak, and so forth. So I change a lot of parts based on what she tells me is playable. But it’s also just the sound of her in the practice room. I hear it a lot. I hear the same warm-ups every day. I hear the pieces she’s playing, and I have her sound in mind when I’m writing for clarinets.

It becomes a little bit of a problem, of course, when a composer is married, especially academic composers, because there are usually rules against nepotism at most universities. So we’ve never had jobs in states that touch. When I started at Brandeis, she was teaching in Maryland. So every other weekend I would make an eight-hour drive from Boston to Salisbury, Maryland, to be with my wife and then come back up two days later and do my teaching and then maybe do some composing on the next weekend. For the first nine years of our relationship, I was doing those long drives—eight hours there, eight hours back. When I was at Columbia, I was taking the train from Worchester, Massachusetts to New York. For the last 10 or 11 years, she’s been at the University of Maine, while I’ve been at Brandeis. Now she’s the one doing the driving. Every Thursday night, she drives four hours to our house in Massachusetts and Sunday afternoon she drives back. We’ve learned how to figure out the schedule and how to keep two houses active, and keep everything going. This is what happens when composers fall in love, I’m sorry.

FJO: Judging from a photo of the two of you in high school that’s on your website, you two go back a very long time.

DR: We had known each other slightly for a very long time. The picture on my website is from the 1976 winners of the solo, ensemble, and composition auditions from Vermont All State. Since we were both composition winners, we just happened to be sitting next to each another. But we didn’t really know each other. We had been to a summer festival when I was a junior in Burlington, Vermont, at the University of Vermont. We didn’t share any classes. I actually played trombone in a reading of a piece of hers, way back when. And then she came to Princeton as a graduate student, where I already was, and so we got to know each other again. We were roommates, but not lovers. Then we moved to Boston at the same time in 1985, and we had breakfast every Saturday for awhile. Finally in 1988, she got a one-year job at Reed College and I got a one-year job at Stanford, and—strangely enough—that’s when we got together.

It used to be Cambridge and Brookline, that’s an easy commute. But Portland and Palo Alto was a little bit of a longer commute. We’d known each other for 14 years, so about a month after we hooked up, I just said, “Well, you know, we already know what each other looks like in the morning, because we’d done that—we were roommates. So let’s get married! And so we did.”

FJO: Now do you find your compositional ideas rub off each other?

DR: Yeah, especially her playing when she’s writing for herself. I do run things by her. And she runs things by me. We give very slight criticism of each other. She has branched out into electronic music and video now and is doing quite nicely. There’s not much I can do because I don’t know how to criticize the form. But often I get to be a part of the raw video that she takes. She’s doing a bicycle piece, so I took a video camera and put it on my handle bars while I was riding down the road. And she’s got video of me riding away from her on a bridge. She’s also used little cute movies that I made of my cats. So, that’s the sort of thing we do together, but we stay separate in our compositional lives.

FJO: You mentioned that you used to play trombone; in fact, you even wrote a piece for a ton of trombones.

DR: Yeah, that was when I was an undergraduate at NEC. The first two years you take lessons in a minor instrument. I knew all the trombone players, and one of them said, “You should write a piece for the NEC trombone ensemble; there’s like 28 of us.” And so I did, in a day. For the two trombone players I knew, I figured out which parts they were going to be playing and I gave them notes that seemed to hang over as if they didn’t cut off at the right time. That was my joke in that piece. I’d never written a huge cluster piece before. I was never able to write for 24 of the same thing before.

FJO: Now when you say the joke to that piece, there seems to be a joke in a lot of the pieces—

DR: Yeah, yeah.

FJO: —And there are jokes in your instructions for pieces, too. In the instructions for one of the etudes, you wrote that you should only use your pinky and your thumb and if you use the other fingers, you should be ashamed of yourself, or you should cut them off.

DR: For extra bravura, you can cut off the middle fingers. You can use the other fingers, but you should be very, very ashamed, yes.

FJO: I trust no one has chopped their fingers off.

DR: No, not yet. I don’t know anyone who’s that dedicated.

FJO: Now I suppose some of your jokes come from poking fun at the whole contemporary music tradition of having performance instructions and being overly fastidious about following the writ of the score. So where do you come down on how people interpret your music and the liberties they take, or don’t take?

DR: Any time I hear a pianist play an etude of mine for the first time, I hardly have anything to say because I know everyone will do something differently. And as long as they’re following my instructions, like the crossed hands—it has to be cross handing but sometimes they might use different cross handings. They should have plenty of liberty on a solo piece to do what they think the piece means to them. I don’t like getting overly fussy about performance directions. When I find myself doing it, I always have to stop myself and do a joke, and that’s why that joke is there. It seems dumb to do a piece that’s only index fingers, so I’ll make a joke about index fingers, et cetera.

FJO: But a lot of these things, like crossing hands, a listener to the performance won’t necessarily hear, so there is sort of a theatrical element for an audience watching a piece.

DR: This is why I started making videos of these pieces. Marilyn Nonken premiered that piece in ’98 or ’99 or something like that. When she did it at Miller Theatre with Ensemble 21, she just looked so cool. I wanted to get a video of it. For years I’ve said, “Marilyn, if you ever play that piece again, I’m going to buy a video cassette recorder and make a tape of it.” But she never worked up that piece again. She said it was really hard and she was working on other newer pieces of mine. So when Amy [Dissanayake] picked up that piece and she said she was coming to Brandeis to play some of the pieces for me, I went out and bought a Sony video cassette recorder for $750, and I taped her doing the pieces she was learning for the first recording. Finally, at the recording session, she had it down pat and we did an extra take so I could get that thing that’s now on YouTube, and finally I could show it around as the cross hands piece. Before then, if I was going to demonstrate that piece, I would show the score, which is notated by the hands, and no one in the world can follow it because what you hear is different from what you see in the score. The up and the down are different from the up and the down in the recording. And it’s more interesting just to see it done. I played it for a colloquium at New England Conservatory and one person just said, “It’s not hard at all.” But it is, obviously.

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