Piano and guitar amplified

Singer / guitarist Jimi Canha and keyboard-player Gilbert Emata visit Maui College with their music. Karyn Sarring invites Anne Ku to hear them in her piano and voice classes.

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“You’re the third accountant I know who has become a full-time professional musician,” I said to singer/guitarist Jimi Canha over lunch this afternoon.

To his gig partner, Gilbert Emata who started taking lessons on the organ and piano from age 6 and who grew up in the Filipino equivalent of the Jackson Five, I said, “I took piano lessons from a music academy run by Filipino teachers on Okinawa. They’re the best musicians in Singapore I later discovered when I worked there.”

But I had more things in common than the accountant and Filipino teacher connection. Gilbert Emata and Jimi Canha are a duo — a keyboard and guitar/voice duo who plays regularly on Maui. On Thursday evenings, they play at the Grand Wailea. More recently they were flown to the island of Kauai to play for a Google convention.

Gilbert  Emata and jimi Canha at UHMC, Maui, 9 November 2011
Gilbert Emata and Jimi Canha at UHMC, Maui, 9 November 2011

Today they appeared in three consecutive music classes at the University of Hawaii Maui College as professional musicians and guest lecturers. I walked into the second class (a piano class) around 10:50 am. The performance was in full swing. It was as if they had brought their gig from a five star hotel into a class room. The front was set up with two amplified speakers and cables connecting keyboards, synthesizers, microphone, and other equipment.

In between their songs, Karyn Sarring, who teaches the piano and voice classes at the college, interviewed the musicians.

Jimi Canha told the story of how he learned music by ear and very quickly too. If a guest requested a song he didn’t know, he’d learn it overnight to play it the next day. At college he took a slack key guitar class but otherwise he was mostly self-taught — on the guitar, trumpet, drums, and keyboards. He worked as an accountant for some 20 years before turning his part-time hobby into a full-time profession.

Between his guitar and his microphone sat a small and nearly invisible iPad on a small stand. Jimi Canha showed the class that the iPad stored just the lyrics of songs he sang. No chords. No notes. Just lyrics. When asked which key he sang in, he replied, “It depends on the mood. I choose a low key if I want to be mellow. For a full band sound, I choose a higher key. This morning I started in A. After I’ve warmed up, I might move to B.”

Gilbert Emata elaborated. “By the time we finish our gig at the Grand Wailea, it’s 9 pm. We pack up and drive home. It’s 10 or 10:30 pm. I shower and eat, and it’s already 11:30.” Jimi Canha added, “This is the earliest we’ve had to get up to perform. We were here at, what? – 9 am?”

Once the original keyboard player for Ekolu, Gilbert brought the synthesizer to the group. When he left, Ekolu replaced him with two horn players. Since then he has played with various groups. His recording credits include Uncle Willie K’s red Christmas CD and also a forthcoming blues CD. As he introduced his bass keyboard, main keyboard, synthesizer, drum kit, and speakers that altogether gave him a full band sound, he played riffs that I recognised immediately: the Hammond organ and a familiar rock and roll sound. The grand piano and a nostalgic melody. The bass and drum kit producing a rhythm that made you dance. Here was a musician with an obviously huge repertoire and an ability to follow and accompany anything and everything.

An exchange student asked,”How do you get gigs?”

It’s the typical and most asked question of any musician who wants to perform. Jimi replied,”You start by playing for free. Play for your church. Play at family gatherings.” In other words, don’t expect to be paid when you first start out.

Gilbert added,”We had a guy from the Big Island come to our gigs. He watched us. Then he asked if he could sit in with us. We heard him. Now he plays four nights a week.” In other words, you have to be heard. Show up. This was an informal audition.

In a nutshell, the music scene is small on Maui. Everybody knows everybody (who is a musician). Jimi describes good musicians as those you can “see their heart through their music.” He played the Tahitian drums with a fire knife dancer during Uncle Willie K’s 15-minute performance in the Oakland Raiders football game. It was a great opportunity to share the aloha spirit — the essence of Hawaiian music.

It was 3 pm. Lunch was over. Gilbert and Jimi had given most of their Wednesday to eager students and two teachers. Karyn had another class to get back to. I was grateful to be invited to hear two local musicians share a sample of their vast repertoire, from reggae to jazz, from pop to rock. Until my own piano guitar duo returns, I am rejuvenated by the musicianship in theirs.

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

Three on One piano duet by Anne Ku

Anne Ku’s multi-hand piano duet “Three on One” receives a third performance, this time on the island of Maui when she was still in the Netherlands on 16th July 2011.

It’s a delight to hear the live recording of my multi-hand piano duet “Three on One” performed on 16th July 2011 in the Battle of the Pianists at the Maui Music Conservatory in Hawaii. I was in Utrecht, Netherlands on that date.

The CD arrived in the post along with the programme notes. It’s nice to see my name after Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche, a 4-hand, 2-piano 3-movement piece that I’ve heard played in Munster, Germany.

The Battle of the Pianists was one of several events in “A Little More Summer Music, Please” organised by Ebb & Flow Arts, the same nonprofit foundation that produced our piano guitar duo concert in Makawao in December 2007. When I first heard of the duet concert, I wanted so much to participate, especially to play the Canto Ostinato which is a rare gem.

Ironically it was Dutch composer Simeon Ten Holt’s famous Canto Ostinato which inspired me to write my minimalist duet for 6 hands on one piano when I was still studying at Utrecht Conservatory. This multi-hand duet was first sightread by 5 composers (including myself) at the Cortona Contemporary Music Festival in Italy in July 2007. I called it “Five on One” then. When Thomas Rosenkranz asked me for the score to premiere at the University of Hawaii in Manoa a year later, I changed the music slightly and renamed it “Three on One.” [Download the score in PDF]

Three on One piano duet by Anne Ku
Three on One piano duet by Anne Ku

After sightreading various new piano duets this year through my Call for Scores project, I am inclined to rewrite this piece. For one, the notes should be bigger. Two, it would be easier to lay it out in parts not in parallel as I have done. Readability is extremely important. A minimalist piece needs to be longer. At 2 minutes 26 seconds, it’s ridiculously too short. Listen to the performance by Karyn Sarring, Robert Pollock, and Lotus Dancer.

Three on One duet by Anne Ku (mp3) – click to listen.

Fellow collaborator of my Call for Scores project Karyn Sarring played the bass. Lotus Dancer played the middle part and Beatrice Scorby the top (highest, primo).

Composer’s biography in programme notes (tailored to the Maui audience):

Born in Brunei of Chinese parents, Anne Ku grew up on Okinawa, Japan where she learned English from age 7 and the piano from age 8. After graduating valedictorian from Kubasaki High School, she won a full scholarship to Duke University where she double-majored in Electrical Engineering and Mathematics. She actively participated in chamber music performance while studying the piano under Randall Love. Fast forward ten years later, she was interviewed by the weekly newspaper of the largest university in the Netherlands for her second chamber opera Culture Shock! which premiered in Utrecht on 2 June 2008. Since then she has focussed on chamber music performance with guitar, French horn, and cello and active as producer of Monument House Concert Series and traveling the world with her piano guitar duo and sharing her adventures through her blogs.

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.

Sightreading new multi-hand duets for one piano

First attempt at getting pianists in Utrecht, Netherlands to sightread new multi-hand piano duets has ended in showing off solo works of dead composers. Why?

I am blogging the experience of trying to get pianists to sightread, choose, and commit to studying the new piano duets I collected from the 30 living composers who answered my CALL FOR SCORES. In Maui, I had gone through all 42 new works with Karyn Sarring, an excellent sightreader at University of Hawaii Maui College. On electronic keyboards however, the duets didn’t sound quite the same as on real pianos as I later experienced with Chong Kee Tan in San Francisco.

This afternoon in Utrecht, Netherlands, the first in a series of small get-togethers in my CALL FOR PIANISTS, we three pianists gather in the home of Tom who had just bought a new Yamaha grand piano.

After coffee and a green bean coconut soup dessert, we approached the black piano with a few pieces I shortlisted to try. I showed them pieces that worked in San Francisco — they were easy to read. I showed the pieces that no one dared to try — the notes were too small. But there were other reasons why some pieces were not attempted.

“What happened to tonality?” cried Thera after trying to figure out the beats and pitches of a few duets that required rigorous counting.

“There’s so much wonderful literature of romantic piano music that I have yet to play! Why would I spend time trying to read new music?” exclaimed Tom.

After several attempts to read and decide who was better at the secondo or primo parts, we gravitated to showing off solo works we had studied individually and memorised. Thera played a moving work by Mendelssohn.

“I like to close my eyes and play — much easier than reading,” said Thera.

As soon as it was over, Tom gently pushed her aside and said, “It’s my turn now.” He played a virtuosic work of Haydn followed by Scarlatti Opus 11 no. 11.

How many hours of music have these two pianists got memorised in their heads? How long have they spent studying these pieces?

How can living composers compete with the dead ones who have a head start? Whose music are heard and published and readily available?

On 15th May 2011 in San Francisco, when I tried to get pianists to sightread these duets, one pianist reasoned as follows:

“Composers have to try much harder to get us to play their music. There is so much beautiful music we want to play — music we have heard of. To play music we haven’t heard of, it better be good and worthwhile.”

Perhaps such pianists prefer to play music they have committed themselves to. People, in general, for that matter, prefer the known, certain, and familiar. It’s far more comfortable to play something you’re competent at than try something that shows your incompetence (which can simply be due to lack of acquaintance or familiarity).

My attempt at getting these two pianists to try the remaining 40 duets has failed. They are now (as I write) churning out grandiose sounds of Katchaturian (Toccata), Rachmaninoff (Prelude op. 32 no. 5 in G), and Franck (Prelude, Fugue & Variations).

“It’s not that they are familiar,” protested Tom. “These old works go straight to the heart. Modern music appeals to the intellect.”

Thera added, “Yes, music IS emotional. I see in many modern compositions, the brain comes first.”

Surely there is modern music that appeals to the soul and the heart! But where is it?

“I like Martinu,” suggested Tom as he overlooked my typing. “His is mid-20th century. But he is dead now.”

Would my CALL FOR SCORES be more successful (in the sense of getting works to be played) if I had specified the music to appeal to the emotions?

We end with Liszt’s Consolation number 3. I have not given up trying the remaining multi-hand duets in the few hours left of the afternoon.

I am sure there are pianists who are eager to discover new sounds, new music that has yet to circulate or become familiar. These pianists like to sightread, try new things, work with other musicians, get to know the composers who write the music, and eventually get the composers to write music they want to play. How can I find other pianists like me?