The Complete Piano Music of Neely Bruce: THIS IS IT!
The first of twelve recitals will take place on Sunday 29 September, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. in Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut
In yesterday’s blog I gave some background about descriptive piano music and briefly discussed the method of this, my only descriptive piece (its structure, mode of sketching, producing the finished product). Today I’ll talk about the component parts of the piece and what I do with them, some of the nitty-gritty, so to speak.
First, a general outline. (To follow this, I suggest that you reread the indented paragraphs in yesterday’s blog.)
The piece begins with some generic walking-around music, followed by musical descriptions of the three smaller buildings — the woodshed, the playhouse and the workshop/boathouse. One then comes across the low-lying stone wall, and follows it to the edge of the property. Turning around, one has an excellent view of the grand house and notices the wind for the first time. Some more walking-around music gets us inside the house, where people are indeed “singing songs of another time.” The wind outside the house kicks up and begins to howl, even, but one can still hear the singing, modulated by the gale. The wind subsides. Presumably folks go to sleep.
The first point to make is that none of this is specified in the score. The great master of the descriptive piano piece is of course Erik Satie. Satie’s pieces describe imaginary places, things and events, rather than concrete ones like Tuckaway, its various buildings, and singing around the piano. Satie also forbad the reading of his descriptions while the pieces are played — so the pianist is free to imagine a nightingale with a toothache, but the audience cannot share the conceit. I’ve gone one step further than my beloved ES. Aside from my aforementioned note, which I have modestly placed at the end of the score, there are no clues about what is actually being portrayed in this composition. What you’re getting here is insider information.
1) General, walking-around music. Notice I do not say “promenade,” though obviously I had in mind an outdoor version of Pictures at an Exhibition. I’ve gone to some lengths to make my walking-around music totally unlike that of Mussorgsky, although he was hanging around in the back of my mind the entire time I was writing the piece. His promenade is very purposeful, full of rhythm and destination. My walking-around music is a casual, undirected stroll, NB being a flaneur for a few minutes.
2) The three smaller buildings. Each has its own character — repetitive, playful, or expansive. The sketches for these buildings are only a few measures, but they were indeed made on location, while I stood right in front of each of them and listened spontaneously to my inner compositional voice. When it came time to write out the whole piece, the woodshed and the playhouse are quickly taken care of. The development of the workshop/boathouse took some doing.
3) The wall. The music for the beautiful old stone wall, which I imagine slowly crawling toward the sea, needed to begin in a low register and end at the top of the keyboard. In real life, this wall, if faced so that the great house is behind you, runs from left to right as it approaches Long Island Sound. Based on my slender melodic sketch (a single voice) I devised a three-part canon that slowly inches its way up and up. I am very proud of this part of the piece. It’s a very successful marriage of the descriptive (and emotional) effect of the wall itself and the technique used to paint the wall in music. It’s also a foreshadowing, in 2008, of the unexpected ways in which counterpoint has taken over my musical imagination in recent years. (This recital has three fugues in it. If someone told me ten years ago that I would write something like twenty-six fugues, and many other contrapuntal pieces, over the next decade, I would have laughed incredulously.)
4) The great house, suitable for entertaining. The great house is represented by crashing chords, a stentorian bit of quasi-recitative, and some noisy development of some of the earlier material associated with the smaller buildings. The wind quickly asserts itself. One is glad to be inside.
5) The wind. The arpeggios that constitute this bit of wind music are derived from the arpeggios that waft around the woodshed (remember the woodshed?). I find that as I practice the wind music I want to play it in in a more and more exaggerated manner. Ideally I can make it whoosh and howl around the house, making everyone glad to be inside.
6) The song of another time. When I was writing this piece I was also practicing the Waldszenen of Schumann (opus 82, also known as Waldescenen and other spellings.) I decided I spent too much time practicing hard music, and I should learn some easier pieces. I had learned “The Prophet Bird” in my youth (that’s the only piece from the set that anyone plays these days) and liked it a lot. I took one look at the entire opus and was hooked. — a very imaginative, original and somewhat dark collection that seemed to have my name written on it. For various reasons I have not played Waldszenen in public, but I still practice it from time to time, for my own pleasure. The tune in Eb that floats in towards the end of “Tuckaway” is consciously modeled on the sixth movement, “Wayside Inn.” Looking at “Wayside Inn” today, I’m surprised at just how similar the tunes are. Mine is somewhat slower, and takes a deliberately grandiose and sentimental turn (in the manner of Percy Grainger's "Colonial Song"), but the shape of the two tunes is quite close.
7) How all this ends. The wind swells and takes over. I imagined a movie camera looking in at the window, pulling back gradually so that one sees and hears more and more of the weather and less and less of the party inside. Eventually everything quiets down. Inside the cozy house everyone goes to bed, with little Ivesian touches as they settle down.
Having written “Tuckaway in Early Summer” I have no desire to write another descriptive piece. That being said, I’m very happy to have written this one.