David Rakowski: The Piano Etude Guy

Frank J. Oteri: So now that you’ve got all these etudes on YouTube, are more people finding your music? How is YouTube helping further the music of David Rakowski?

David Rakowski: I don’t know. There are some people who are subscribing to my videos. I have no idea who they are. Amy’s actually hearing from a lot of people. “Hey, I saw you on YouTube; you looked really great!” She said she’s gotten some really nice attention from it, along with her own webpage, and she’s really gung ho to do more etude movies for the next batch. So we’re sort of gearing up for that, as well. She can’t wait to do it, and I can’t wait to do it, too. They’re fun to watch. I think they’re much more fun when you see how they’re done, because a lot of them are very physical. It’s just another sensation that I like when I’m listening to music—seeing it.

FJO: And since C.F. Peters is publishing all the etudes, in volumes of ten each, I would think that these videos could serve as a great commercial to target anyone studying the piano.

DR: Amy thinks that they’re good documents for people who are thinking of doing the etudes and might want to see how hard something actually is or what something actually sounds like. Otherwise you can only get 30-second snippets on iTunes. This way they’ll find one they can hear all the way through. They see how hard it is and then they’ll know which volume to order. If you want to do number 32 and number 56, you have to buy two different volumes. But if you want to do number 32 and number 36, they’re both in the same volume.

FJO: And you said that Peters has does very well with this series.

DR: They’re my biggest sellers. Everything else sells zero, so that’s why.

FJO: Now that leads to a very interesting question about the state, the future of music publishing. You’re with Peters, but very few composers your age have publishers and the market is changing a lot.

DR: It is.

FJO: But if you write a lot of solo piano music, as long as people are studying the piano or playing the piano, there ought to be a market. It’s quite different, say, from having an orchestra piece that people have to rent, which might only get done a few times.

DR: Well, it’s great being with Peters because they now have a fairly good web presence, as far as I’ve been able to tell. And Gene Caprioglio has always been very great to work with there. He’s very fast. If I ask for any kind of a score to be sent to anyone, he’ll send it right away. It’s nice to have someone else do that with a big piece with lots of parts.

FJO: Do you just give them the score and they do the part extraction?

DR: No, I do that. I do all of that. I give them all that. Otherwise they pro rate it against my royalties which are so low anyway. I think they’re doing a good job with the piano etudes: a lot of people have heard of them, and I’ve seen them all over the place. But I’m glad that Amy has been recording them and has recorded them so beautifully. A lot of people have heard of them because of that. The first review the piano etudes got was for the ones on the Hyperblue CD: “These seem nice for college recitals, but I can’t imagine anyone else caring about them.” Once a few more were recorded and a few more people picked them up, they started getting nicer and nicer reviews. Now, everyone knows that I’m the piano etude guy. But I’m also the band music guy, and the orchestra music guy, and also the chamber music guy. And my vocal music isn’t so bad.

FJO: Well, as far as being the chamber music guy goes, you did win the Stoeger Prize, which is a major award for composing chamber music.

DR: I’m very grateful for that, partly because the money is financing a recording, and partly because it’s decided by performers, rather than composers. I like the idea that some performers got together and decided, of all people we have here, this is the guy whose chamber music we like the best this year. And so I’m very proud of that, and grateful.

FJO: As far as the wind band stuff goes, you wrote the only wind band piece that has ever been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

DR: Yeah, yeah, I don’t know how that happened. I have no idea how that happened. I just was given the greatest band that was ever assembled, and I was able to write for it. I could write anything I wanted, and I guess nobody has ever heard a band do that before. So someone said, “Give that guy a medal.” I don’t know.

FJO: Now, in terms of band versus orchestra, you also said I’m the orchestra guy—

DR: Well, I can write for orchestra, but I don’t get a chance to very often.

FJO: Well, a 35-minute orchestra piece of yours is premiering this November, a piano concerto, which might also be that big piano piece you said you hadn’t written yet.

DR: Yeah, piano and full orchestra, November 2nd, Jordan Hall. Marilyn Nonken is the soloist.

I’d written four concertos with chamber orchestras before, and they all had some sort of ironic take on a concerto. Either there’s a doppelganger of a soloist who’s trying to take over, or there’s fundamental disagreement between the soloist and the orchestra and they can’t cooperate. For this, I was ready for the big romantic piano concerto. Since it was written for Marilyn who did all the groundwork to get this piece off the ground and who’s also recorded 11 etudes, I wanted to make her a regular kind of a piano concerto, but also referencing the etudes that I associate with her: The scales etude especially, E-Machines which is the repeated note etude, and a few other ones that I originally wrote for her. And they’re all over the piece. The first movement, instead of a two and half minute repeated note etude, it’s practically a nine-minute repeated note etude. But it’s got other things coming in there, and it takes forever for the first movement to get away from A—which, by the way, is the priority note of the first movement. I forget where it ends. The ending is all about the scales piece, the sliding scales which is also on YouTube which she plays so marvelously. And that takes almost 11 minutes, including a cadenza where it really comes out. Taking the etudes and putting them inside a big romantic piano concerto was exciting for me. I don’t know if I can do that with a horn concerto, or some other kind of a piece. But I really like being able to do that and then thinking how that all was going to come together. It came to writing an opening that had both repeated notes and scales in it and making that the generative stuff of the whole piece: the music that occurs in all of the movements and is the beginning of a tune, and so on.

FJO: Now in terms of it being the big romantic piano concerto, I don’t think there are any big romantic piano concertos where the pianist is asked to switch to toy piano at some point.

DR: Yeah, that was another thing. That came about simply because of a conversation I had with Marilyn. I said, “I’m going to write you a piano concerto and I’m thinking seriously of having you play the toy piano as well.” Her first reaction was, “That would effect which dress I wear.” The fact that that was her response made it imperative for me to use the toy piano. So the toy piano has its own little function in the piece. At the end of the first three movements, it does stuff that has no relationship to what’s been going on. In the third movement, the toy piano music sneaks into what’s going on in the orchestra, but still, when it plays at the end of the movement, it turns out to be kind of a non sequitur. And finally, just before the cadenza of the last movement, the toy piano and the piano play together in big octaves in something really fast that you wouldn’t expect to hear from a toy piano. The toy piano is brought into the piano-ness of the soloist. I like the idea of doing that with the toy piano, plus the fact that she said that would affect her dress.

FJO: Do you know what dress she’s going to wear?

DR: I have no idea.

FJO: So there’s no instruction in the score about what she has to wear.

DR: No, no.

FJO: This whole toy piano thing feels like some sort of long-awaited reward, since the first thing people see when they visit your site is an image of you with the toy piano. That same photo is even on one of the Bridge etudes discs. In a way, I’ve thought the whole thing was false advertising since there’s no toy piano on that CD. In fact, you’d never really written for toy piano up until now.

DR: No, I haven’t. I remember a year and a half ago, when I was writing the piano concerto, looking online for the highest quality toy pianos you could buy. Schoenhut, I suppose. I actually bought two. One is in Marilyn’s apartment. The other one turned out to be bad. I didn’t realize you could get a three-octave version. I already had a two-octave version at home.

FJO: You have a Jaymar.

DR: Beth got that at a flea market. I just thought it would be fun to do a promo photo for the second Bridge CD that had me with a little piano. So that’s on my site. And because the second toy piano was defective, I had to take it apart to see how to fix it. And now I know how it works. It’s really kind of simple and I’m surprised anyone can get any action out of it whatsoever. But my friend Jeff Burlson, who was over, was playing it. He’d get something really fast because he’s a really great pianist. And I knew that OK, I can write something really fast for this. The Jaymar that I’ve got is too old; it doesn’t have the right action for it. But something really, really fast happens in the fourth movement, and I told Marilyn it was going to be a Rick Wakeman moment. She didn’t know who Rick Wakeman was. But, we’ll find out.

FJO: So there are these piano etudes which now seem to have a life of their own and there’s all this other larger-scale music. As you’ve said, you haven’t written a big piano piece. You have one piano piece that I know of at least—there may be others—that’s not an etude: Sara. Why isn’t that an etude?

DR: I wrote it specifically as an elegy for Sara Doniach, who had actually commissioned me to write pieces for her teenage students in Palo Alto. Jim Goldsworthy and Judy Bettina, whom I’ve worked with, also suggested that I should write something that was simple to play, something that her teenage students could play. And this is what came out. It’s not about one thing. It’s sort of about a major sixth and what I felt was right to do next. So that’s complete stream of consciousness, that one.

FJO: Have you ever thought of writing etudes for other instruments?

DR: I’m going to write one for flute on slap tonguing, but I have to meet with a flutist first to figure out what works best. But I’ve thought of it, yes. So far, no other instrument comes to mind. I’m certainly staying away from trombone.

FJO: Now, in terms of what brings a piece to life, what generates a piece, do you create pieces as a result of commissions? What’s the process that takes you from: I’m gonna write this piece; this piece is happening; this piece happened? What’s that arc?

DR: It depends. Normally it’s somebody asking for a piece, whether or not it’s commissioned, and just trying to think very much into the sound of an ensemble, thinking about what can be done in terms of how the instruments or instruments and voices can dialogue. What kind of gestures can I make that are interesting that I haven’t heard before for this ensemble? What kind of story might work as a narrative, at least for me? And finally, what is there in the first music that I write that seems like it leads to whatever follows? That is, is there anything thematic, or harmonic, or rhythmic that seems to have a profile of its own that I can take and develop in whatever ways I know how to develop?

Last summer I wrote two bird pieces without intending to. I was asked by the Stonybrook Contemporary Players to write for them. I chose a piano quintet, and I’d had this sort of strange idea in the back of my mind. I could do bird flapping sounds with warbling notes in violins, but I hadn’t figured out how to do it yet. I went to Yaddo, and I knew I was going to start writing it there. As I was setting up my computer, this giant great blue heron flew right by my window. I looked out at where it was sort of nesting and standing around, and then I watched it take off: sort of clumsy in the beginning, compared to the great beauty of it in flight. That transition became the metaphor for the piece that I wrote.

For the other piece, called Gli Uccelli di Bogliasco, I was given an ensemble—two pianos and flute—which, every time I mentioned that I was writing for it to composers, their expressions made it look like I had just farted. It occurred to me while I was at Bogliasco writing the piano concerto and hearing all these bird songs—which I’m very much attuned to, since I’ve been living in the country for so long—that those bird songs were not like any I already knew. I took some time to sit outside with some score paper and sometimes with napkins to transcribe what I was hearing. I got a collection of about twenty of them. It seemed to me that these bird songs were the only thing I could do with flute: Turn the flute into a kind of bird, and then turn the pianos into bigger birds—that, plus using the inside of the piano a lot so it doesn’t overwhelm the flute. So the idea for that whole piece came out of just realizing that I was being surrounded by a lot of bird sounds I had never heard before. I imagined how Messiaen must have felt when he heard American birds for the first time.

FJO: It’s fascinating to hear you describe how attuned you are to what you hear around you. What do you want listeners to hear in your music? Ideally, how would you want people to listen and interact and think about it? What matters to you in terms of what somebody’s getting when they hear it? How much information should they have beforehand? How much information do you hope they’ll walk away with after having heard it?

DR: Well, I think audiences always respond better when they get to actually meet the composer who will say something about the music, as compared to reading it in program notes which always tend to be stiff and formal, especially when I write them. I would expect that they would get something about some story—at least get the idea that I was trying to tell this story. That somewhere in there, there were characters, things that were interacting that they could find if they were listening hard enough. I would try to ask them to listen as closely as possible. Listen closely and I’ll try not to bore you; I’ll try to do something interesting enough from moment to moment. I would hope that they would have some experience of listening to other post-1900 music so that they know what to expect. I don’t want to be completely out of the blue.

FJO: What about somebody who has no background in classical music who only listens to alt rock bands etc.?

DR: Strangely, some of the piano etudes—like the cross hands one, because of just how very raw it is—those kinds of people, or the students that I have, like those. Other people just think they’re kind of strange. Alt rock people should like some of the etudes. The rougher ones. Now that I think of it, maybe they’re the audience I’m going for. I don’t know. But in any case, I can’t control who the audience is. I just hope they can keep an open mind and an open ear and listen. I think Milton Babbitt was asked this question once in an article in Perspectives and he said “I have met the audience, and he is me.” That’s a weird way to end, so we won’t end there.

FJO: Well of course, you know with Babbitt, everybody forever and a day thinks first about that the title of that article which he didn’t even come up with, “Who Cares if You Listen?” But even without that title, the article still draws a line between writing for an audience and writing for yourself. Who are you ultimately writing for?

DR: Ultimately, I’m writing for myself, I think, and for people who have the same sort of likes and dislikes in music as myself. But of course, I would like to broaden, as well. I’d like to write as wide a variety of music as I can and still give it my personal stamp. I’d like to reach as large an audience as I possibly can, but also I’m writing for myself. And I also have some buttstix left.

FJO: Are there any dream pieces you’d like to write that you haven’t written yet?

DR: Yeah, I’d like to write another symphony that is just separate movements that share big blocks of material across movements that sound different because they’re differently contextualized. And I think I’d like to write a flute concerto. I don’t know why. I’ve always hated the flute. So I’ve got to write a flute concerto.

FJO: Just like Mozart.

DR: Yeah, exactly.

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