Birds of a Feather by Chip Michael
How do you get musicians to play a symphony when they don’t live together?
Ask composer Chip Michael.
Birds of a Feather by Chip Michael
How do you get musicians to play a symphony when they don’t live together?
Ask composer Chip Michael.
How do performers meet composers and commission works from them?
I met Allan Segall during the intermission of a concert in Amsterdam in spring of 2004. The encounter left such an impression on me that I wrote an entry in my online journal. A few months later, I invited him to my Steinway welcome party in Bussum. He introduced a simple but sticky solo piano piece that I played and recorded for the event. As with most if not all compositions, Intermezzo comes with a story. I would love to include it in my solo piano project but I would need the score in electronic form.
Allan was intrigued by our piano guitar duo. He said that he enjoyed writing for “neglected ensembles.” By that, he probably meant rare combinations. We invited him to the premiere of the first piano guitar duo written for us. Afterwards, he declared that he would write a duo piece for us.
Allan’s output was a work that required several years of practice to get it right. I’m still not entirely sure that we got it right. “When J.S. Bach, Igor Stravinsky, and the Who met” is a terrifically difficult but exciting piece. It’s like time travel, with Bach counterpoint, Stravinsky harmony, and echoes of Tommy the rock musical. I daresay it’s the first time that the guitar is louder than the piano. We premiered it in Cortona, Italy in 2006. The USA premiere was on Maui in 2007. We finally released the CD of that Maui concert earlier this year. You can hear a short sample on CDBABY.
Once allowed to flourish, creative people have no boundaries. Allan Segall has now expanded his powers of creation beyond music. He wrote the play “Detox the Dummy” which premiered in Estonia recently. I remember when he was working on it. Our friendship nearly suffered during the period he was going through “detox.”
Watch the TV video below for an interview (in English) with Allan Segall. Don’t let the unsubtitled Estonian language deter you from seeing clips of the play.
While researching for my forthcoming paper on “call for scores” I came across an announcement in English and in Dutch, calling for scores for saxophone and piano, deadline April 2012.
I recognize Alkema, the last name of my late composition teacher Henk Alkema. I see the announcement is made by Matching Arts and Utrecht Conservatory. I recognize the name of one of the jurors, Jeroen D’Hoe who had also taught me composition at Utrecht Conservatory.
Once upon a time, a Chinese classical saxophonist from Szechuan (Sichuan) had shown me different effects of the alto saxophone to interest me in composing a modern piece for him. I did not write a solo work for saxophone. Instead I included the four kinds of saxophones in an ensemble piece as part of a composer-in-residence project. That’s when I learned of the saxophone’s range and versatility. Saxophones could sound like flute, clarinet, or French horn.
In my last conversations with Henk Alkema, he had urged me to start composing again. I see he has not given up.
The contest is open to composers of all ages and nationalities. I am glad to see that. During my four years at conservatory, I found that most competitions posted on our bulletin board had imposed age restrictions. I did not know then to look online. This contest has been announced in many composition forums and newsletters. I will for sure follow the results of this competition in 2012.
On Sunday 3rd April 2011, while sightreading 81 short piano pieces entitled “80th Birthday Jingles” by the Honolulu-based composer John Carollo, I came across an old work of his from 1986. John, whom I first met in Cortona, Italy in July 2006, walked out of his kitchen and came towards me.
“I haven’t heard that in awhile.” He seemed caught off guard. Later, I learned that he had forgotten about this piece.
It was tonal music from his pre-serial days.
“Play it again,” he mused.
John had written this Satie-like waltz for his friend Bill whose surprise birthday party I had attended two nights earlier in a million dollar home in Hanepepe Loop. On Sunday in a penthouse in central Honolulu, we were just eating the leftovers from that executive chef-catered dinner when my playing of his Waltz evoked even earlier memories of his journey as a composer.
I liked it so much that I took it to Utrecht, Netherlands and recorded it on my grand piano on 4th August 2011.
Just yesterday afternoon I found the three of John’s CDs: the award-winning Ampersand, Starry Night for String Orchestra, and Transcendence in the Age of War. Now that I have time in Maui, I will listen to his works, although I have already heard one performed in my house on 1st July 2011. Pianist Nathanael May played his Prelude as the last piece of a set of five by the composers Antheil, Chopin, Gershwin, and Debussy as the opening to a house concert. (Programme 2-page PDF) It was well chosen before John Cage’s dream-like “In a Landscape.”
Immediately after I left Honolulu, John began composing a 9-movement work for my piano guitar duo. While we have not yet had time to rehearse the piece, I have already requested John to extend the second movement which is so addictive!
Born in Torino, Italy, John Carollo was brought to the U.S. by his adoptive parents. John took piano lessons and began composing his first piano works while at San Diego State University where he graduated with a Masters Degree in Psychology. Shortly thereafter, John moved to Honolulu, began a full-time mental health career for the State of Hawaii and started private composition lessons with Dr. Robert Wehrman. So great was his passion for composing that he quit his day job to compose full-time. Since then his works have been performed in Italy, Netherlands, and elsewhere. Website: http://www.johncarollocomposer.com
Subtitle: From quartet to trio to duet
This blog post concludes my review of all shortlisted works from the 42 multi-hand piano duets received from 30 composers in my Call for Scores project. After this, I will write and speak about the insights garnered from trying these duets with pianists from Maui to the Netherlands. “Trying” included first-level sightreading and making a decision about the difficulty, playability, readability, and potential for further study, performance, and recording. Some pieces received a proper performance-level debut. Others were attempted and discarded.
San Francisco-based composer and oboist Phil Freihofner brought his new “Girl with the Hat Box” score to the sightreading workshop and piano soiree in San Francisco in mid-May 2011. It was sightread twice, first by me and 2 others and second by 2 late comers who chose this piece over others in the binder.
In the preface of this 5-movement piece sprawled over 30 pages, he described the work as a “three hands” arrangement of his “Quartet #1 for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon.” I can already think of friends in the Netherlands who would readily request to play the original quartet. It’s a programmatic piece inspired by a Russian silent film Devushka s Korobkol which translates to “The Girl with the Hat Box.” The one page preface tells the story as plotted over the five movements.
Now, three-hand, one piano pieces are not the norm in piano duet music. The most prevalent form is quatre-mains, i.e. 4-hands on one piano. Three hands? The International Petrucci Library lists just a few on its 1 piano, 3-hand page. I think this scarcity of repertoire stems from a desire for pianists to play with both hands. Furthermore, pianists want to play constantly. Pianists are not like orchestral players who are used to counting empty bars.
Freihofner specifies that the work is intended for 3 pianists, each using one hand, at the same piano. It’s also possible to play on more than one piano. But he did not state that 2 pianists could play. I decided to try it with 2 other pianists in San Francisco and later just one pianist in the Netherlands. The effect was very different. I agree with the composer: it should be played by 3 pianists and not 2. Thus this multi-hand duet could be categorized as a trio.
Sadly I did not find an opportunity to record this while in the Netherlands. Hopefully this blog will inspire my peers in Hawaii to make it happen. It can easily be a nice multi-media project to accompany the first 14 minutes of that film from 1926, directed by Boris Barnet or part of some Russian festival. I know of a house concert producer in Virginia who has a captive audience in the Russian community. Having grown up next to Russian neighbours in Okinawa, I can see how this piece would work well in such a thematic event.
I extract a system from each of the five movements in an attempt to give my readers a feel for the piece.
The second movement is a pleasant waltz with quarter note = 108. If only 2 pianists were to play, the second one should do the middle and bottom parts which form most of the accompaniment.
Like the Galop which starts slowly (in a very short intro), the third movement quickens in the main part of the March.
The fourth movement is a fugue, one of my favourites in piano duet playing. A fugue translates to a chase. Here the main character Natasha (the girl with the hat box) takes the train to Moscow where she meets a poor but handsome student.
This five movement trio ends slightly more upbeat (quarter note = 126).
When I tried this piece for the last time on this 3 month journey from Maui to the Netherlands, one pianist exclaimed, “May I please have this piece?” At first I was reluctant because the well-prepared, printed score was my only hardcopy, and one with my penciled markings. Then I remembered that this Dutch pianist had an established piano teaching practice for some 30 years and she usually never asked for music unless she liked it. This meant she would be enthusiastic in playing it and sharing with her students and other pianists. My reply? “Here, take it. This would give me an excuse to meet the composer again, on my way back through San Francisco to Hawaii.”
On my return journey, I met with Phil Freihofner for breakfast on my layover in San Francisco Airport. He gave me a new version of the score, this time “dedicated to Anne Ku.” What an honor! I have five copies now. Who will I meet in this part of the world wanting to try this work with me?
For more information about the composer and his various arrangements and compositions, visit Phil Freihofner’s website at http://www.adonax.com.
During my 2.5 months in Utrecht, Netherlands this past summer, I took out sheet music I had collected for years to choose ones worth taking with me to Maui. Some of these pieces were so enjoyable to play that I decided to record them.
I was searching for music that’s easy to play and nice to listen to.
Contrary to what you may believe, it’s not easy to write music that is easy to play. It’s harder still to write music that’s nice to listen to but not boring after the first time. Good music, I sincerely believe, gets appreciated each time it’s played. It grows on you.
Amsterdam-based composer Heleen Verleur is a pianist and piano teacher who has the benefit of observing how her students read and study her compositions. She has written numerous solo and chamber works that involve the piano. I was fortunate to discover her music quite early in what-I-now-call my Dutch era — a decade of infatuation with the Netherlands.
I performed her Prelude in d minor and fugue at a concert in Bussum, a village east of Amsterdam, in 2002. I had also introduced her Tango for violin, cello, and piano to my house concert in London and her piano duets to the Monument House Concert Series and a sightreading workshop prior to our piano guitar duo concert in San Francisco. Heleen has also written “Fire” for our piano guitar duo, which we premiered in Spain in 2010.
In the “V” section of my music library, I discovered yet more short works for solo piano that she had given me.
“Daniel’s Song” met my criteria of easy to play and nice to listen to. I decided to record it on my Steinway.
As a sightreader, I have an insatiable appetite to discover new music. Now and then, I receive a score that I want to sightread and perform for others. Such was one by the Chicago-based conductor Kim Diehnelt. Her music preceded her.
This is one way musicians get to know each other — through music.
At first I thought she was a conductor. She thought I was an agent or arts manager. Once I premiered her piece in Maui, I then got to know her as a composer.
Over an afternoon snack at Chicago O’Hare Airport recently, the first time we met face to face, I asked her about this piece.
The Impromptu was born out of a desire to capture a moment. Although a unique moment, it may very well be one we all have experienced. A friend shared a brief description of a morning scene where Bach’s Prelude No. 1 flows from the radio, a glance towards the piano where this piece sits open, a memory from long ago surfaces. In a flash, all these combine into a new awareness of how the current self may meet the tasks of the day.
It is the moments of Between-ness that fascinate me. I hope performers – and listeners – will savor the ‘between-ness’ created with the appearance of each new note.
Because I love the wine-tasting approach to music, the back page of the score has remarks similar to a wine label – “Austere counterpoint of quiet, timeless reflection punctuated by pauses of full, warm harmony. A captured moment – it lingers in the morning air.”
What’s interesting is that when Kim Diehnelt composes an ensemble work, she actually sees the score as an ensemble — not from a keyboard like many composers do. We discussed the importance of readability for playability down to the size of the measure. If it’s too long, the player may think it’s slower than usual. As a conductor, she knows what she’s looking for and what she wants to hear. When she sits down to compose, she can see it and hear it.
Listen to my recording of Kim Diehnelt’s Impromptu below.
Impromptu by Kim Diehnelt, as interpreted by Anne Ku (recorded on Steinway Grand model A, 1909 New York) in Utrecht, Netherlands, 4th August 2011 (mp3)
It has been nearly five months since the deadline of my Call for Scores has passed and 3.5 months since the Piano Soiree in San Francisco where several of the piano duets were played. And it has taken THAT long to find another pianist to study, play, and record a duet.
During my 2.5 months in Utrecht, Netherlands (end May – mid August 2011), I actively sought pianists to sightread the 42 duets from 30 composers. Aside from those too boring or too difficult, there were many candidates for a replay. After gauging the sightreading experience with different pianists, I decided which ones deserved another re-evaluation.
Martin Blessinger‘s Capriccio is a fun piece that challenged me enough to recruit someone else with whom to prepare and play together. Below is an extract of the recording on my Steinway Grand in Utrecht, Netherlands with me as primo and Carol Ruiz Gandia as secundo.
The Texas-based composer wrote:
This piece is a transcription of a movement from Tapas, a suite of short pieces I wrote a few years ago for violin and viola duo. It struck me that one of the middle movements of the work, Capriccio Pizzicato, would work particularly well for four-hand piano. This is an ensemble that has always appealed to me for personal reasons. I was a piano major as an undergraduate, and some of my fondest memories are of reading through four-hand piano works with other members of the piano studio at SUNY Stony Brook.
In studying for this piece, I focussed only on getting the notes correct, labeling ledger lined notes and polite accidentals whenever possible and necessary for clarity. When we got together to play, we decided to make a small comma after the third quarter note in bar 6 because it felt like a breath was needed. These are decisions that can only be made after studying a piece (not sightreading).
I thought I had the difficult part until I saw what the secundo had to do in bar 33 and 34 while I played nothing. Spanish pianist Carol Ruiz Gandia decided to memorise those octaval 16-th notes while I stayed put. Moving the page distracted her. So I waited until bar 36 before I moved the page.
We decided to add some dynamics in bar 58 where it was already forte. We went back down to a mezzo forte and made another crescendo to a forte in bar 60. These dynamics added to the piece. In bar 61, we went back down to a piano and steadily climbed until a big fortissimo in bar 64. The secundo immediately dropped back to a mezzo piano (subito) and I joined her to crescendo to another fortissimo in bar 65. And again. These dynamics are essential to make this piece exciting to play and listen to.
On top of page 7, we retracted to piano and then pianissimo as we descended.
Listen to the 3rd movement Capriccio Pizzicato of Tapas from which this duet came. I rather think the entire 4 movement piece for violin and viola could be arranged for piano duet. I particularly enjoy playing fugues in duets.
In the meantime, having discovered its origins, I will share it with my violin and viola friends in Bristol, where just a year ago I was sightreading piano trios and quartets in their newly renovated Georgian home.
When I learned of the death of my late friend Ayyub Malik three months after the fact, I was upset that I had not been notified earlier. His friends had tried everything to retrieve email addresses from his new computer. Not everyone was informed as his computer had not locked in earlier correspondence. In the ensuing months, long after the funeral, I liaised with others to organise a memorial concert nearly a year later. Only then did I get a sense of closure.
When I learned from my composition teacher that he was dying but he did not want to broadcast it, I was equally distraught. I didn’t know how many others knew. I couldn’t share it. I could do nothing about it. When I learned of his death two days after the fact, I immediately wanted to make sure others knew about it. I was glad I had not yet left the Netherlands to attend his memorial service and funeral.
More importantly, I was grateful to be granted a spot on the programme to say something about my teacher.
There is something to be said about a gathering of people who want to remember and honour the person who has died — to share the grief. This gathering brings a sense of closure and peace. I felt it today.
I found a seat next to Jonas, who had spent the past 48 hours traveling from Madrid. He had graduated before I began my studies with our teacher. He was returning to Spain the same day.
I saw several familiar faces. I never expected to see some of them again, certainly not at a funeral. I did not recognise everyone as it was out of context — the environment of Utrecht Conservatory where I had seen most of them last. All speeches except Jonas and mine were in Dutch. I couldn’t understand most of it but the music of Henk Alkema brought tears to my eyes. Listen to “My Little Friend” sung by his daughter Femke.
Henk Alkema gave me a chance —to study composition, as an older student at Utrecht Conservatory.
He was critical of my work, questioning if I was doing the composing or my fingers. Was I improvising or composing? He was brutally honest about my music. “Too many notes without pause. Too busy. It’s like a preacher who can’t stop talking. You can’t understand what he’s saying. You just want him to shut up.”
Half-way through my studies, Henk retired. I was relieved. I got to study under another teacher. His most devout students, however, protested his retirement by refusing to be taught by others. I didn’t understand why they were so loyal until I got stuck two years later.
I was preparing for my final exam – half of it was a chamber opera involving three dozen musicians that I had to recruit. I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the project.
Henk came to my rescue. He asked me how I was doing. He offered to help me. I cycled to his houseboat where he sat down with me, going through detail after detail, fixing notes, explaining why certain passages didn’t work, and giving me precious lessons in orchestration. We stopped when I got tired. “Come back when you’re ready again,” he’d say. He was teaching from the heart.
I learned that it was easy to compose difficult pieces but difficult to compose pieces that were easy to play.
I was not his best student. Far from his favourite. More like one of his worst. In fact, I stopped composing when I graduated.
As we lived so close to each other, we began to collaborate on another level.
Henk wrote a piano guitar piece for my duo. “Sailor Talk” showed two sailors getting drunk on a boat. When introducing this, I would tell our audiences that Henk lived on a houseboat and that he went sailing every summer. He understood life on a boat. We premiered it in Italy, Netherlands, Spain and the USA. It is now published with Donemus.
Henk actively supported the house concert series I founded with my duo, performing chamber music in three concerts.
My current project that involved Henk included getting his piano duets sightread, performed, and recorded. These duets were initial sketches for ensemble. On my last visit and the last time I saw him, he showed me some of his unpublished and unperformed works.
I will now play one of his unpublished piano duets from the set of 8.
One listener expressed:
Its power is haunting, a gem of simplicity and the composer’s art.
My music collaborator in Hawaii wrote, “Losing a teacher is like losing a parent.”
She knows. She is a singer.
In music we have individual lessons. We develop a one-on-one (or one-to-one) relationship with our teachers. It’s like that in doctoral studies, too.
I still keep in touch with my piano teacher from Okinawa though it has been decades. Last year my piano teacher at university organised a concert for my piano guitar duo.
The same goes for composition. When a composer accepts you as his student, he takes on the responsibility of getting you to compose and develop as a composer.
What if you lose interest in composing? What if you stop composing altogether?
The teacher would be disappointed surely. Most would give up or lose contact.
But we continued to collaborate.
“Anne, I just wrote a concerto for euphonium. I’d like to perform it at your Piano As Orchestra house concert on piano with euphonium.”
It was the first time we had a brass instrument in the Monument House Concert Series.
Had he not been ill, he would have served as a panel discussant in the most recent Monument House Concerts.
“Henk, would you write something for my piano guitar duo?”
We premiered Henk Alkema’s “Sailor Talk” in Cortona, Italy. We performed it in Amsterdam and La Coruna. We performed and released the CD of the live recording in Maui 2007. The score is now published with Donemus.
“Henk, do you have any piano duets I can use?”
Henk Alkema, who taught me composition, became a performer in the concerts I organised and a composer of a work I performed.
In music, your teacher becomes your mentor. The relationship is life long. When one dies, part of you dies.
After Henk Alkema retired from Utrecht Conservatory, he continued to volunteer his services, as teacher, conductor, and composer. Below is a clip featuring the Utrecht International Harp Competition.