Many hands and pianists on one piano – Elizabeth Lauer

Elizabeth Lauer’s Pischna Polka is written for 5 pianists, one hand each. Five men tried it in San Francisco while 2-men, 2 women tried it in Utrecht only to find that a 5th person was needed. Lauer also sent two arrangements (Berlin & Gottschalk) for multi-hand piano duets that were sightread in Netherlands.

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One of the most enthusiastic responses to my Call for Scores of Multi-hand Piano Duets came from composer Elizabeth Lauer. She responded to the multi-hands aspect of a duet.

“What about one piano, five pianists, one hand from each?  The one in the middle should be, preferably, a hipless wonder.”

I replied, “That’s exactly the sort of fun duets we’re looking for – playable, many hands, and fun!”

She e-mailed. “Well, I cannot find the Pischna Polka anywhere, but I’ve sent out e-mails to anyone who might have the score.  The basis of the piece is one of the Pischna piano exercises, which roams around the five hands, while whoever is NOT playing this is participating in a rather atonal polka.  It’s fast and about 2.5 minutes long. ”

While she was looking for the polka, Elizabeth Lauer sent me her 8-hands on 2 piano arrangement of Gottschalk’s Grande Tarantelle, the first 10 pages of which I sightread with three pianists last Sunday in Utrecht, Netherlands. It’s the subject of another blog post — how we started with two pianists on one piano, three on one, 4 on one, and moved eventually to two pianos on a rainy day in July in Holland. The Gottschalk was a lot of fun, stopped by my hesitation to print the remaining 53 pages from a home printer that was starved of paper and toner.

Lauer also sent me her arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano” for 4 pianists on one piano in which some had to recite “I love a piano.” We tried that arrangement here in Holland and discovered that pianists can play but not necessarily recite.

At the Sightreading Workshop and Piano Soiree in San Francisco, five men stood in front of a grand piano and sightread the “Pischna Polka.” When I tried it with the three pianists (seated) here in Holland, I discovered that you really need five pianists (one hand each).

The Pischna Polka by Elizabeth Lauer: Five men on one piano in San Francisco, May 2011
The Pischna Polka by Elizabeth Lauer: Five men on one piano in San Francisco, May 2011

From Lauer’s programme notes on “The Pischna Polka” written in 1978 and refined in 1998 and dedicated to Walter Hautzig.

My original intent was to compose a piece (using one of the Pischna exercises throughout, wandering up and down the piano, with a spiky polka in — how shall I say? — counterpoint) for piano duet. There was such clamoring for participation that I had to change that cast of characters to five pianists, one hand apiece (with the middle person being a hipless wonder). I ventually gave up my position as player, and did the page-turning for the (then) hand-written score.

The 11-page polka moves along quite fast at quarter note = 68. The challenge is getting all the 16th note scales in sync. Imagine getting all five pianists to play together — with one hand each!

Extract from The Pischna Polka by Elizabeth Lauer
Extract from The Pischna Polka by Elizabeth Lauer

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 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.

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?

Call for pianists: new multi-hand duets on one piano

A second attempt at getting pianists to sightread and study and perform new piano duets by living composers: 3rd July 2011 in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Several months ago, I posted a “Call for Scores” to composers to submit multi-hand duets that could be sightread on one piano. My blog was picked up by several composition newsletters and websites. Even Google was keen to let the world know about this quest. [Just google “multi-hand duets” and you’ll get the drift.]

Unfortunately, several things happened that prevented a full-scale sightreading competition.

  1. Most of the scores I accepted because they looked interesting to play turned out to be not easily sightreadable.
  2. The pianists that liked to play in a soiree preferred to play pieces they have studied for performance. Few such pianists would like to attend a sightreading event, much less be judged in a sightreading competition.
  3. Listening to work that is being sightread is not as enjoyable as listening to work that has been studied, rehearsed, and perfected for performance.

The sightreading competition of Sunday 15th May 2011 in San Francisco was rebranded as a sightreading workshop and piano soiree. Still, the rumour that some composers may come deterred some pianists to participate. As much as I wanted to broadcast to invite the 30 composers (and they in turn to extend the invitation to their friends, family, and fans), I had to refrain from doing so. In the end, just two composers who lived near the venue came to the event. [Visit the webpage for details about the 15th May piano soiree and feedback.]

Most of the duets did not get played. I still intend to write about those that did.

I carried the heavy binder from Hawaii to Holland, and along with it, the responsibility of getting pianists to look at the new works by living composers and try them.

At the end of June, two American pianists, Nathanael May and Brendan Kinsella, will come to the Netherlands to give concerts from our Monument House in Utrecht. Besides organising the house concerts of 1st July and 2nd July, I am calling pianists to look through my collection and choose pieces to study and perform for 3rd of July.

Details of the Sunday 3rd July 2011 concert is given on High Note Live, a new concert and audience management web application.

Gardens of the famous Dome Church in Utrecht, The Netherlands
Gardens of the famous Dome Church in Utrecht, The Netherlands

Multi-hand piano duets in San Francisco

Forthcoming blog post on sightreading multi-hand piano duets in San Francisco.

I received 42 duets from 30 composers for the CALL FOR SCORES of multi-hand piano duets for a sightreading competition.

On Sunday 15th May 2011, pianists gathered in a beautiful 120-year-old Victorian mansion in Duboce Park in San Francisco to try the new music. Two SF-based composers attended the event and talked about their work. As far as I know, it was the first event of its kind — and largely inspired by the idea that true sightreading can only occur if the performers have never seen or heard the music beforehand — i.e. still in the minds of the composers.

Here is a one-page PDF summary of my piano teaching thesis on sightreading (2008).

I will be writing about the music, the experience, and more on this blog in 2 weeks’ time.

Watch this space.

5 pianists playing The Pischna Polka by Elizabeth Lauer
5 pianists playing The Pischna Polka by Elizabeth Lauer

Writing multi-hand piano duet questions: 6 hands one piano

Writing music for 6 hands one piano can prove tricky. Here are questions posed by a composer and answered by concertblog.

While the CALL FOR SCORES piano duet submission deadline of 5th April 2011 has passed, the project continues in the lead up to the 15th May 2011 piano soiree in San Francisco.

I will be blogging about writing music for piano duets, getting performers to play new works, audience experience, and topics related to contemporary music (i.e. works of living composers), accessibility, multi-hand duets, sightreading, etc.

One composer from Albany, NY asked the following questions in bold. I shall reply to each.

For three hands, three players:

1) Do I notate three staves, (one per person), on a single system that runs through a single score? Or would each individual get their own part (on one or two staves?), and do their own page turning…they each have a free hand, after all!

I have seen both versions. If it’s a short piece, then one page for each player is good.

If it’s a longer piece that requires page turning, the parallel staves is more suitable.

If the parts depend on each other, that is, the players need to be well-synchronised, the parallel staves may be more conducive.

2) Where do pedal marks go? To the relevant phrase? or to the bass player?

In the parallel staves, the pedal marks go in the bottom staff. In the one page per pianist layout, I would put pedal marks for all as it is not clear who will be doing the pedaling.

3) Should I provide fingering suggestions?

This is fine.

4) At what point do two players on a single key constitute a problem? For example: imagine a sequence of thirds: C E, D F, E G, F A, etc. I would think this can be handled just fine at almost any speed. (Player Rightmost: E, F, G, A; Player Center: C, D, E, F.) But what there is a note being released by one that the other wants to play. For example, if we wanted to play C E, then E G? At what speed, if any, does the E key become a problem? (I can play two-handed arpeggios with one hand one key behind the other at slower speeds, but it gets harder at faster tempos, that’s for sure.)

This is the fun of playing duets that you sometimes have to touch each other, dance around each other, or run into each other.

5) Are reach-overs sometimes okay? I have a spot where I want the Rightmost player to reach over the Center player and play a couple notes between the Center and the Leftmost players.

All varieties are possible. Reachovers are fun.