The Heartbeat Duet by Michael Christopher Churchyard

Michael Christopher Churchyard’s The Heartbeat Duet has parts of different difficulty levels, allowing players with different sightreading and playing levels to play together. Even so — and even with the slow tempo — players need to count well and play in sync.

The previous piano duets I have introduced and reviewed here on Concertblog from the multi-hand duet call for scores were written for pianists with equal sightreading and playing ability. In fact, it is one of the challenges of finding someone else with the same ability level as you to reach that “flow” in playing. Otherwise, as mentioned in the previous blog post, it is frustrating for both players. The more advanced player has to slow down or stop (get interrupted) while the less advanced player struggles to keep up, sometimes with just one hand.

“The Heartbeat Duet” by Michael Christopher Churchyard  is an example of a duet in which one part is more difficult than the other. The primo has to play octaval chords in a rhythmic pattern that is more challenging than the secundo part which is predictability repetitive. Appropriately titled, the work sounds like heart beats.

The Heartbeat Duet for 4 hands 1 piano by Michael Christopher Churchyard
The Heartbeat Duet for 4 hands 1 piano by Michael Christopher Churchyard

Churchyard writes:
Shortly after discovering your contest for multi-hand piano duets, I found myself interested in the possibility of uniting the pianists emotionally through a repetitive, droning, and melodically emotional soundscape. As both players create this sound within an intimate and personal atmosphere with only one another and the audience, there is a level of attachment and kinship formed between the performers. ‘The Heartbeat Duet’ proceeds with this concept; a bass pedal on C, together with repetitive chordal implications continuously sounded at strict intervals which frequently displace the notated meter, is symbolic of a heartbeat throughout the score. The second pianist responds with expressive melodies always developed in close accordance with previously established melodic material.

‘The Heartbeat Duet’ is minimalistic, and appropriate for pianists of moderate technical ability; the score instead focuses on precise melodic and rhythmic performance and expressive interpretation.

Having tried many fast pieces, Brendan Kinsella and I decided to slow down to a heart beat of this duet. The Lento (quarter note = 60) forced us to count carefully. Even so, you can hear that we were not quite together in the beginning. Dynamically it’s marked pianissimo and piano up to bar 14 and mezzo forte thereafter. I would have preferred a crescendo to the end, somewhat like John Carollo’s “Completely Clothed in Sound” for three players.

Listen below for an extract — sightread by Brendan and me on Monday 4th July 2011 – and recorded on the 1909 New York Steinway Grand at the Monument House in Utrecht, Netherlands.

The Heartbeat Duet by Michael Christopher Churchyard

Retrograde by Mari-anne Hof: from trombone quartet to quatre mains

Mari-anne Hof arranged her trombone quartet Retrograde for four hands, one piano duet. It was the first piece that was selected for sight reading at the Piano Soiree in San Francisco in May 2011.

As I cycled westbound from central Utrecht in the late afternoon, I passed by the annual Festival de Parade near the train station. It reminded me that exactly this time last year I had gone to see the premiere of a new opera with my composition classmate Mari-anne Hof. I had told her that I could get us both press tickets if she would translate my review into Dutch, hence published in Le Bon Journal: “Ricciotti Ensemble premieres Pinocchio in Love” in English, and De premiere van Pinocchio in love van het Ricciotti Ensemble in Dutch.

Mari-anne Hof created a 4-hand one piano duet out of her trombone quartet entitled Retrograde. She sent me the midi version to ask if it’s not too hard to sight read for the Call for Scores of Multi-hand Piano Duets project. It sounded easy, if played more slowly.

The score is nicely laid out and easy to read. There are rehearsal markings from A to K, which, in addition to the bar numbers in each system, make it easy when rehearsing with the other player. Given the 7 pages, it’s important to discuss which player will do the page turns. In fact, I’d like to request all composers to lay out their scores to enable performers to turn pages easily. Reading a piece is already challenging enough, without having to figure out the page turns.

Retrograde by Mari-anne Hof
Retrograde by Mari-anne Hof

Now compare the midi version below with the recording of my version with Brendan Kinsella.

Retrograde for 4 hands one piano by Mari-anne Hof – midi version

Ours was much slower though we did try to follow the metronome marking of quarter note = 130.

Retrograde for 4 hands one piano by Mari-anne Hof — recording of Anne Ku & Brendan Kinsella, Utrecht 4th July 2011

Retrograde was the first piece I selected for the sightreading workshop I conducted in San Francisco in May 2011. I thought I’d start with the easiest piece, but my judgment was wrong. It wasn’t so easy for the two sightreaders. One fell behind and played with just one hand while the other struggled to keep the rhythm going. I thought they would give up at some point, but they persisted. I can’t say it’s enjoyable to listen to people sightread when we are so used to polished performances of pieces we’ve studied.

What next? I would love to hear what the original trombone quartet sounded like! I should cycle by her house before I leave Holland for Hawaii next month!