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.

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

Readability for playability: piano duets by Mark Francis

Readability of the score is necessary for playability. Mark Francis’ “Lights from Across the Lake” is a colourful piece used to demonstrate the two kinds of layouts for piano duets.

There are two ways to lay out staves for a multi-hand piano duet.

Parallel staves where the primo is on top of the secundo works well if one player has to see and keep track of the other player. If the systems are not spaced out far enough, it can be confusing. In the following passage from Mark Francis‘ “Lights from Across the Lake” a wider space between the secundo bars 29 to 31 and primo bars 32 onwards is all it takes to make it more readable. I’m guessing that the octava extends from bar 31 until it reads loco in bar 38 and the high C in the left hand in bar 31 is not sharped as written. A courtesy natural sign would help those sightreading this piece.

Lights from Across the Lake piano duet by Mark Francis
Lights from Across the Lake piano duet by Mark Francis

The second way to lay out the notes is to put the primo on one page and the secundo on the other. In the case of 3 players, each one has his/her own page. Page turns could be come a problem.

In “Lights from Across the Lake,” which is marked at quarter note = 60, we see that each player has 3 pages if the music is laid out in this way. Below are the last measures for the primo.

Lights from Across the Lake - primo part - piano duet by Mark Francis
Lights from Across the Lake - primo part - piano duet by Mark Francis

Because the music is straightforward, i.e. no irregular meter or rapid changes of time signature or the need to wait and count empty bars, it’s not necessary that one player sees or anticipates what the other is doing. The secundo part is below.

Lights from Across the Lake - secundo part - piano duet by Mark Francis
Lights from Across the Lake - secundo part - piano duet by Mark Francis

On Monday 4th July 2011 at the Monument House in Utrecht, Brendan Kinsella and I sight read and recorded this piece. Brendan thought it was colourful and preferred it to the other duet that the composer had submitted to my Call for Scores. Click below to listen to our recording on my 1909 New York Steinway.

Lights from Across the Lake piano duet by Mark Francis

The other piece “A Winter Rhapsody” was sightread at the Piano Soiree in San Francisco in mid-May 2011. We decided against recording this second piece because of the tricky alignment of the triplets in bars 28 to 31 (below).

A Winter Rhapsody - piano due by Mark Francis
A Winter Rhapsody - piano duet by Mark Francis

From the composer’s programme notes, Mark Francis writes

The Two Pieces for piano, 4 hands were written in 1985 and revised in 2008.  They were written at the request of pianist Robert Jordan for his students.  Each piece is a musical description of things I would see around the area where I grew up near Buffalo, NY.  Lights From Across the Lake describes seeing the lights that mark the entrance of the Welland Canal, just above the horizon at night, from the American shore on Lake Erie.  A Winter Rhapsody is a description of the wind and snow of a winter in Western New York.  There is something beautiful, powerful and forbidding about it. 

Monument House Concert 5 years on: Brendan Kinsella 2nd July 2011

Anne Ku remembers the piano concert of Brendan Kinsella and invites the guests to comment.

Exactly five years ago on 2nd July 2006, we invited our friends guitarist Matt Gould and violinist Beth Schneider of Duo46 to open our Monument House Concert Series with the first concert. Fittingly entitled “Music of the Americas,” the one hour programme contained music by the American composers Astor Piazzolla, Robert Beaser, Allan Segall, and Jorge Liderman. Duo46 who flies from Phoenix, Arizona to Italy via Amsterdam every summer has a trio with pianist Nathanael May called the Strung Out Trio. On 1st July 2006, Dr Gould conducted a guitar master class at the Monument House.

It was much simpler then. Master class one day. Concert the next. My friend Linda from Wassenaar made carrot cake for the two dozen guests that gathered in the back garden after the concert.

Five years later, in contrast, the back-to-back concerts came with chef-catered pre-concert dinners, panel discussions, organic wine tasting, raffle prize draw, silent auction, discount vouchers for Chinese massage and manicure, post-concert organic luxury cookies, and home-made desserts generously donated by our neighbour Ita (on both evenings).

The piano room before the concert begins. Photo: Willem de Vriend
The piano room before the concert begins. Photo: Willem de Vriend

Three volunteers arrived early to anticipate the full house audience. Rotary scholar from Honolulu Robbieana Leung joined Amir and Susan, who had volunteered the day before at Nathanael May’s solo piano concert. As Eveline Scheren was arriving after dinner from another organic wine tasting, Susan took over the wine service.

Last year at the Glass Vase Concert where Egyptian cuisine was served, my Vietnamese friend in Houten offered her Vietnamese chef friend for a future concert. Chef Hong and her daughter drove hours to here with pre-cooked fried rice, chicken, noodles, pickled salad, and vegetarian dishes. The spring rolls were deep fried on location.

Vietnamese dinner by Chef Hong at the Monument House. Photo: Willem de Vriend
Vietnamese dinner by Chef Hong at the Monument House. Photo: Willem de Vriend

Once again the weather was agreeable to an outdoor gathering, necessary to make space for the non-dinner guests who arrived between 7:30 and 8:15 pm. One couple called to ask if it was possible to attend without prior reservations. Several more not on the pre-paid reserved guest list showed up. Luckily there was standing room.

Robert Bekkers played two solo guitar pieces to welcome Brendan Kinsella.

Full house at Monument House Utrecht Kinsella Concert. Photo: Willem de Vriend
Full house at Monument House Utrecht Kinsella Concert. Photo: Willem de Vriend

Brendan Kinsella apologised for playing Liszt in Utrecht where the International Liszt Piano Competition is held every three years. One Liszt fan who had attended every Liszt semi-final round later commented that she had never heard the pieces chosen by Kinsella. His programme is listed below.

“a la consolation” by Leonardo

” Angelus” and “Les jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este” by Franz Liszt

“Aubade” by Francis Poulenc

“Down by the Riverside” by Frederic Rzewski

INTERMISSION

“Sonata in C Major, op. 53” by Ludwig van Beethoven

Encore: “Erlkonig” by Schubert/Liszt

As a special treat, Utrecht-based American entrepreneur Katie Miller donated 100 luxury organic cookies including a box for silent auction. The winner took home a box of 20 cookies for her birthday.

The best part of the concert, for me, was sitting behind Brendan and experiencing his performance close up. I wonder what was the best part for the more than 3-dozen guests who attended this concert? Please LEAVE A REPLY below.

Brendan Kinsella gives virtuosic performance. Photo: Willem de Vriend
Brendan Kinsella gives virtuosic performance. Photo: Willem de Vriend

Glass works on water at the Monument House Utrecht

Music after concerts at the Monument House in Utrecht by pianist Brendan Kinsella and art exhibition of Liz Miller.

After the thirty black chairs have been folded and removed from the ground floor, the Monument House is once again spacious and full of potential. Two days after the last concert of 2nd July 2011, I asked Brendan Kinsella to play something on the piano so I could capture that feeling of peace and freedom. That afternoon before he left for the Hague, we were sightreading the multi-hand piano duets I had collected — and thus the sheet music scattered on the floor. Earlier that morning, pianist Nathanael May, who gave the previous concert on 1st July, had left for Milan, Italy to open the annual contemporary music festival he founded in 2005 and still directs.

Continue reading “Glass works on water at the Monument House Utrecht”