Monday, June 29, 2015

Some "new" pieces for piano four-hands

On the next "This Is It!" recital (number six) there will be some unusual pieces. More details in future blogs, but today I wanted to mention what are perhaps the most unusual ones. I have been looking through what I call my "pre-teen effusions." I have several notebooks of music and sketches from high school and earlier — I began to write music at the age of nine. Since "This Is It!" is billed as my "complete works for solo piano," I've been going through the material to see what should be performed. It turns out there is a lot more than I remembered.

There are unfinished and quasi-finished piano sonatas, for example, and I'm not sure what to do with them. I remember a waltz I wrote at the age of eleven, and played for my piano teacher Carolyn Pfau, at the Birmingham Conservatory. The waltz had a lot of black keys in it (key of F# major) and was heavily influenced by the Brahms waltzes, which I had recently discovered. I was very proud of it at the time, although Miss Pfau wasn't particularly impressed. It seems to have disappeared — in any case I can't find it. Perhaps it will turn up...

Earlier this year I announced that I would be playing some of my pre-teen music on this occasion, and indeed I will. But I'm still trying to figure out what to do with the sonata(s), and the waltz I really wanted to play may never resurface. So I have decided to make short, almost fragmentary pieces, based on sketches for orchestral works. Of course at the ages of 9, 10 and 11 I had no concept of orchestration, and no appreciable knowledge of music theory, but I had a burning desire to compose and great enthusiasm for the orchestra. I produced a lot of stuff in varying stages of completion and performability. I have taken some portions of this stuff and turned it into vignettes for piano four-hands. The working title is "Neely at Nine." (I'm quite sure that at least some of this stuff was generated at that age.) There are four of these. They are basically arrangements of materials that cannot be played with just two hands. I've kept editing and revising to a minimum. However, since they were intended for orchestra, I have indulged in octave doublings and displacements, and a few other "orchestrational" touches. I'm particularly delighted with what I did with the cymbal part, in the excerpt from "Symphony No. 1" that concludes the set. It's a very nice, conspicuous cluster near the top of the piano.

Of singular interest (to me at least) was the discovery of my first "fugue." Of course it really isn't a fugue, and it's clear that, when I wrote it, I didn't know what a fugue was. But it pleases me that this modest bit of three-part counterpoint is on the same program with four of my Friendly Fugues, written in the last five or six years and obsessively revised for this recital. Five world premieres!

The whole of this retrospective project, so far, has required revisiting my youth, and I'm very comfortable with that. I find, however, that revisiting my childhood is a completely different matter. I recognize myself as a teenager, and in my twenties — indeed, at just about any previous age, back to twelve. But I look at these notebooks and say to myself "What was I thinking? Who is this nine-year-old boy with the same name?" I recognize the energy, and I remember the tunes, now that I'm looking at them. But the state of mind that produced them, even the physical process of writing this stuff down, it's all receded into a part of my brain that is difficult to access.

This surprised me. I remember a lot about my childhood — places we lived, the names of friends, things I did with my sister and my brother, things my parents did and said, and so on. I'm starting to write my autobiography, and I'm very conscious of dates, locations, cast of characters, etc., back to the age of four, when my family lived in Buena Vista, Georgia. But the beginnings of my compositional process are mysterious, at least at this point. Perhaps that's just as well, and as it should be.

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