Art and music improvisation: an observation and reflection

Watching an art and music improvisation session reminded me of the various collaborations I’ve had with artists in London, Utrecht, Crete, and Brugges. It’s about the process.

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As a finishing touch to my recent application for an innovation grant, I asked the Maui-based artist Mike Takemoto if he would consider having his students collaborate with mine. I was thinking along the lines of an exhibit of paintings of musicians, music instruments, or music notes. It would be an extension of the piano ensemble poster exhibit that I “curated” and organized with the photography teacher Harvey Reed and his photo and design students last spring. Such interdisciplinary collaboration raised awareness of the activities we wanted to promote.

Continue reading “Art and music improvisation: an observation and reflection”

Piano duets from Hawaii to Holland

Summary of the “Call for Scores: multi-hand piano duets” project from January to September 2011 with links to reviews of selected individual works by living composers.

Call for Scores of Multi-hand Piano Duets

This was an experimental project to get living composers to submit interesting duets for pianists to play and to get feedback from the pianists on readability, playability, and more.

The first round of sightreading took place in Maui: over 3 separate sessions, Karyn Sarring and Anne Ku sightread the 42 duets accepted. This set was short-listed and some sent to Chong Kee Tan, organiser of the mid-May event in San Francisco to get interest. As a result of feedback, it was decided not to have a sightreading competition but a sightreading workshop with piano soiree instead. The event was not publicised to composers because some pianists expressed reservation in sightreading new works in front of them. In spite of this, two Bay Area composers attended.

To get more pianists to play, Anne Ku took the printed PDF sheet music to the Netherlands to interest pianists to try the music with her. The following pianists (by first name only) in chronological order attempted the duets: Tom, Thera, Brendan, Ahti, Huub, Liesbeth, Carol, and Bart. Anne Ku recorded several extracts of sightreading with Texas-based Brendan Kinsella in early July and 3 studied pieces with Utrecht-based Carol Ruiz Gandia in early August 2011.

Chronology from 31st January 2011 onwards:

REVIEWS OF SELECTED DUETS ## = sample score ** = mp3 or video recording

Steinway Grand used in recordings of multi-hand piano duets
Steinway Grand Model A 188 (1909 New York) at the Monument House, Utrecht, Netherlands used in recording of multi-hand piano duets

Piano duets of Loren Jones

The three piano duets of San Francisco-based composer Loren Jones are a delight to play although not immediately sight-readable. Nevertheless they are worth studying for a performance.

For my Call for Scores of Multi-hand piano duets, I received three piano duets from Loren Jones, a composer based in San Francisco. Unfortunately we didn’t get to try them at the Piano Soiree cum Sightreading Workshop in San Francisco in May 2011.

“The Man with Four Hands” (2005) was his first piano 4 hands piece, written for his CD “Woodward’s Gardens.”

“The Secret Door” (2007) originally written for someone else but not performed until 2010 by the piano duet ZOFO.

“The Mt Eyhan Gabriel Caves” is Loren Jones’ newest duet, recently premiered by two teenage brothers in The San Francisco Composers Orchestra in June 2011.

When Karyn Sarring and I sightread “The Mt Eyhan Gabriel Caves” in April 2011 on electric pianos at the University of Hawaii Maui College, we thought it would fit well as a good first piece in the second half of a concert to welcome the audience back. We loved the nice colours, kind of jazzy.

We found “Man with 4 Hands” satisfying, steady, and well-written. The small 32nd notes in upwards arpeggiated motion seemed hard at first, kind of like being the first to swim on a cloudy day. Once you dive into the cold water, it acclimatises to your body temperature and you realise it’s not that bad. Perhaps a larger font would make it easier to read. Readability helps playability. In bar 23, we assumed that the sixteenth notes in 6/8 time equaled the sixteenth notes in the previous bars in 4/4 time.

Initially we were intimidated by the 358 bars of “The Secret Door” which spanned 25 pages and lasted over 7 minutes. Nevertheless I was so curious that I had to try it with Brendan Kinsella in my home in Utrecht, Netherlands. It was not exactly sightreading for we had to figure out the pattern of the 16th notes beforehand.

The Secret Door piano duet by Loren Jones
The Secret Door piano duet by Loren Jones

We managed to record the first 50 measures. The rest, we concluded, we had to study to give it the sound it deserved.

Extract from The Secret Door piano duet by Loren Jones, sightread by Brendan Kinsella & Anne Ku

It’s exhilarating to play passages that are pianistically fun. Look at the way the left and right hands follow each other, and the way the primo and secundo dance around each other, as if the sequences are nested within each other. The right hand (RH) follows the left (LH). The primo follows the secundo. This is “Ocean” tempo marked fast with quarter note = 152.

The next section is a waltz “Flying with the birds” — very programmatic — as our curiosity begs the question, “when will we get to the secret door?”

Indeed these three duets lead me to look for an opportunity to study and record them in Maui (where I’m destined next) and meet the composer in San Francisco (before I land in Maui).

Piano duet by Christine Donkin

What makes a piano duet a duet? Christine Donkin’s “The Sea of Tranquility” is a beautiful piece that requires the two pianists to play together.

What makes a piano duet? Read on.

After Karyn Sarring and I sightread Canadian composer Christine Donkin‘s “The Sea of Tranquility,” a piano duet for 4 hands on one piano, we exclaimed, “Now that’s a duet!” It was an instantaneous reaction after trying several duets that were either awkward to play or confusing to listen to. We had put aside three one to two hour sessions to sightread through all 42 compositions accepted for the Call for Scores for multi-hand duets. The duets traveled from Maui to the Netherlands where I am finally able to write about them.

What makes “The Sea of Tranquility” a duet?

Listen to my recording with Brendan Kinsella in Utrecht, Netherlands below.

The Sea of Tranquility piano duet by Christine Donkin, played by Brendan Kinsella and Anne Ku

We were making music. We were listening to each other. It was as though we were trying to be one person with many hands instead of two people trying to play together. Brendan remarked that the music was pianistic and conceived for the instrument. I felt we were trying to make something beautiful while staying calm and expressive as indicated in the tempo marking.

The score was easy to read. Laid out in parts not in parallel systems, we did not need to see each other’s parts for we could hear it. The 4/4 time was straightforward with quarter note at 92. There were 4 systems per page, and 4 pages per part.

Some of the more difficult passages are the sudden emergence of many accidentals which give the tranquil sea a rough edge. Check out the primo part below.

Extract from The Sea of Tranquility by Christine Donkin - primo
Extract from The Sea of Tranquility by Christine Donkin - primo

The secundo supports the melody in the primo through wavelike arpeggios.

Extract from The Sea of Tranquility by Christine Donkin - secundo
Extract from The Sea of Tranquility by Christine Donkin - secundo

“The Sea of Tranquility” comes from a set of three pieces called “From Riccioli’s Moon,” each of which is named after one of the lunar features identified by 17th century astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli. The composer wrote in April that the set is scheduled to be premiered in late summer or fall 2011.

I would love to see the rest of the set.

Constant, perpetual, everlasting piano duet by Chip Michael

Chip Michael’s piano duet Amaranthinesque starts softly with a persistence that causes the listener to anticipate eagerly for more.

The 21-page piano duet “Amaranthinesque” begins with the primo repeating 90 high E’s (i.e. 7 bars of a set of 4 triplets of the single high E note in the right hand) before descending to the first rehearsal mark shown below. The left hand also begins pianissimo but in a single minor third and gradually breaks into a two-voice melody taken over by the secundo in bar 10.

Amaranthinesque piano duet (page 2) by Chip Michael
Amaranthinesque piano duet (page 2) by Chip Michael

This opening of repeated notes gives it a constancy and persistence, like something that won’t go away yet preludes something else to come. The composer, Colorado-based Chip Michael, writes, “I rather think that’s what music should be, enjoyable to play – particularly this piece.  Fun, yet challenging.”

I was intrigued by this piece but also realised that the page turns might be problematic without a third person at our disposal. Chip Michael had already specified the need for a page turner in his first e-mail to me. Luckly Brendan Kinsella, who sightread and recorded the duet with me, knew the trick to turning pages and playing at the same time. He gently folded the loose sheets vertically in half. Playing the secundo part allowed him to multi-task as page turner.

Due to the sheer length of this work, we were not able to record it in its entirety for this blog post. Click below to get an idea of this duet.

Amaranthinesque by Chip Michael – extract recorded by Anne Ku and Brendan Kinsella

When I later played the secundo part, it felt like a different piece. I daresay that the part you choose in a duet very much determines the experience you have. I would suggest players switch parts just for the fun of it — and for variety’s sake.

The duet develops with repetitive triplets appearing in different places — an overarching theme of persistence, constancy, and permanence. 155 bars and many voices later, it slows down to a majestic B minor chord.

Amaranthinesque by Chip Michael - the ending
Amaranthinesque by Chip Michael - the ending

Chip Michael also sent several solo piano pieces I’m eager to try out — just as soon as I clear my backlog of duets from my Call for Scores project to review.

Chip Michael’s programme notes:
Amaranthus, collectively known as amaranth, is a cosmopolitan genus of herbs particularly easy to grow and considered a symbol of indigenous culture.  Rich in protein, amaranth is a great source of nutrition avoiding the gluten issues of wheat.  It also grows in a broad variety of climates making it an ideal crop.

However, European interests and American corporate farming has made global harvesting and distribution of amaranth fiscally undesirable.  This piece takes its attitude from the plant, constant, perpetual, everlasting.

Piano duet by Robert Pollock

Maui-based composer Robert Pollock’s “A Little Transition Music, Please” is exciting and engaging to play. Listen to the recording and judge for yourself.

One of the reasons for calling composers to submit sheet music for multi-hand piano duets (i.e. my Call for Scores) was that I got tired of the predominance of the existing repertoire for 4-hand one piano music that’s easily available in libraries and in music stores. I was sure there was more music than the quartre mains of the bygone 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, composers readily arranged piano versions of chamber music and even orchestral works. Some began with duets and then orchestrated them.

When I told Maui-based composer and pianist Robert Pollock about my Call for Scores, he immediately gave me his “A Little Transition Music, Please” — quatre mains written for the occasion of 21st November 2010 – MACC presents E&FA. Robert Pollock founded Ebb & Flow Arts after he moved to Maui from New Jersey. Most recently the foundation organised a “Battle of the Pianists” on 16th July 2011 in which my multi-hand duet “Three on One” (6 hands on one piano) was performed.

As I could not participate in the “Battle of the Pianists” because I would be physically on the other side of the world, namely in the Netherlands not Hawaii, I carried his piano duet across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco to sightread it with Chong Kee Tan and across the Atlantic Ocean to Utrecht, Netherlands where I finally recorded it with Brendan Kinsella on my Steinway on 4th July 2011.

What emerged was a duet we all found to be exciting, engaging, and fun. Click to listen to the recording below.

A Little Transition Music by Robert Pollock, performed by Anne Ku and Brendan Kinsella

The secundo starts with what seems like an ostinato on the left hand, setting the scene, or rather the pace and the anticipation. The primo joins in the second beat of the third bar, like a conversation. In fact, the entire piece is a conversation that gets more and more charged and exciting. The secundo never stays still but keeps the momentum going.

A Little Transition Music, Please - duet for 4 hands, one piano by Robert Pollock
A Little Transition Music, Please - duet for 4 hands, one piano by Robert Pollock

Music that has been performed is obviously more ready to be sightread and played than untested sheet music. Let’s hope works like these find their way into mainstream quatre-mains repertoire.

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