Falling on lobsters in the dark

Falling on Lobsters in the Dark” (yep! that’s the name of the piece!) is a brilliant exploration of fear through three instruments violin, guitar, and piano. The American composer Paul Richards made every use of the exciting combination and effects of each instrument to create a piece that rocks….


Commissioned and premiered by the Strung Out Trio, “Falling on Lobsters in the Dark” is a brilliant exploration of fear through three instruments: violin, guitar, and piano. The title is borrowed from a speech before a Rotary Club that we’re all afraid of falling, lobsters, and the dark. The American composer Paul Richards made every use of the exciting combination and effects of each instrument to create a piece that rocks.

Our piano guitar duo plus Korean violinist Naeon Kim teamed up in Fall 2007 to study this piece, our raison d’etre….

Here is the first half of the piece, as rehearsed in in room K206 at the Utrecht Conservatory, minutes before our final master class in May 2008.

Second half of the piece, recorded in the master class with Dutch pianist/musicologist Ralph van Raat:

and watch this space for background info and analysis.

Rendering 7 for violin, guitar, piano by Gijs van Dijk

I urged the guitarist to extract the video of our premiere of “Rendering 7” from the 8 hour video of the Chamber Music Marathon concert of 5 June 2008 in Utrecht. It was a piece the Amsterdam-based composer Gijs van Dijk wrote for our trio with the young Korean violinist Naeon Kim.

In preparation for Gijs van Dijk’s visit this past Wednesday, I urged the guitarist to extract the video of our premiere of “Rendering 7” from the 8 hour video of the Chamber Music Marathon concert of 5 June 2008 in Utrecht. It was a piece Gijs wrote for our trio with the young Korean violinist Naeon Kim.

Rendering 7 by Gijs van Dijk
Rendering 7 by Gijs van Dijk

That we chose to study and perform the “Rendering 7” as a trio before attempting “Abstract and Dance” for our duo was largely due to our readiness and eagerness as a trio to tackle new music. The Strung Out Trio of duo46 and pianist Nathanael May had commissioned, performed, and recorded bespoke works for their violin, guitar, piano trio years before our piano guitar duo thought of getting together with another instrument.

Our trio was formed rather serendipitously. At the beginning of my fourth and final year at conservatory, I suddenly developed a kia soo tendency to grab the most of what was left of my four-year full-time music education. [For a definition of kia soo, scroll down to the middle of the page on Clutter.] I signed up for the Chamber Music Marathon, which entitled an ensemble to coaching sessions with some of the top performers and teachers at the conservatory as well as two recorded concerts in the big concert hall (the oldest in the country).

“Piano and guitar?” questioned Joyce Tan, the violin teacher who was head of the chamber music project. “That doesn’t make an ensemble. You need at least three performers.”

Do we have music for piano, guitar, and another instrument? Yes! A not very well-known piece by the not so well-known 19th century composer Nicholas Stossel (1793-1844). Divertissement op. 33 was written for keyboard, guitar, and either flute or piano. As performers, we preferred to play either well-known works or not so well-known but exciting and challenging compositions to break from the tradition.

The works of Florida-based composer Paul Richards fall in the latter category. Commissioned by the Strung Out Trio Richards’ “Falling on Lobsters in the Dark” ignited our interest, not only because of obscure title but also the history behind it. His three-movement “Cypriot Structures” was the third piece we knew of.

I went back to the conservatory, on a man hunt. Could I find a violinist or a flute player who was good and not taken? On the final day of the chamber ensemble registration, I asked Joyce if she knew of a violinist who fitted the bill. She pointed to a young man who had just whisked into the reception area.

“Are you a violinist?” I asked naively, seeing that he carried what-looked-like a violin case.

“Yes, errr…. sorry?” the tall, slender violinist replied. “I just got back from Korea.”

“You mean, you just arrived?” It was rather late. He must have missed the first two weeks of school. “Are you already in an ensemble? It’s the last day to register for Chamber Music Marathon.”

He scratched his head. “Well, some people have asked me. But I’m not sure if they have signed up.”

Dazzling with hope, I asked, “Would you like to be in a trio with me and a classical guitarist? I have some great music for us.”

“Guitar? That sounds interesting.” I got his attention finally. “Sure, why not?” he looked confident and relieved.

“Wait! What year are you in? Are you any good?” He looked familiar. I vaguely recalled that I had been introduced to him the year before, by my classmate the Indonesian pianist Elwin Hendrijanto. But I had not yet had a conversation with him. And I certainly had no clue if he was a good musician to work with.

“I don’t know. I guess you can ask around if I’m any good,” he smiled as though he had never encountered such an accusation.

Well, I’ll just take my chance then, I thought. There are plenty of violinists at this conservatory….

That was how our trio got formed — on the last day of the chamber ensemble registration by sheer coincidence.

Later I learned that Naeon Kim was one of the best violinists around and very much sought after. He started taking lessons from his violinist father at the age of three in Pusan where he was born. By the time he became a teenager, he had already performed in Japan. To assist the sparsely populated viola department at our conservatory, he even learned to play the viola.

We premiered Gijs van Dijk’s “Rendering 7″ in early June 2008 after undergoing a masterclass with pianist and musicologist Ralph van Raat and separate coaching sessions with violinists Chris Duinham and Kees Hülsmann. Below is the recording of our premiere at the Utrecht Conservatory.

Rehearsing new piece with composer

Our rehearsal with the composer brought new insights to the performance of this piece. With fresh understanding, we now have to get into the piece for its premiere on 3rd May in Spain!

Only two weeks after he heard us perform in November 2007, Amsterdam-based composer Gijs van Dijk (pronounced like “hey-s”) finished the “Abstract and Dance” for our piano guitar duo. Instead of starting on that piece, we asked if he would write something for our trio with Korean violinist Naeon Kim.

Today Gijs came to hear his “Abstract and Dance” — for the first time. I had assumed “abstract” in the title to mean an abstract, such as a shortened summary of the piece. He had deliberately made the first part increasingly “abstract” or nearly 12-tone. The pun was not intended. It’s interesting how the gist of the piece comes to light after working with the composer. Without his feedback, we would have to rely entirely on what’s specifically written in the piece.

It begins with andantino grazioso but we only followed the metronome setting at quarter note = 84 not at all andantino or gracefully. In the absence of bows and slurs, we didn’t pay much attention to phrasing. Until now the guitarist and I had been focussing on being able to play together, in synchronisation, without hiccups. There were no pedal indications, but I guessed that pedalling was necessary for such a contemporary piece. To be sure, I just had to ask, for I’m accustomed to do very little pedalling for 19th and 18th century pieces to avoid overpowering the guitar.

“Yes, do pedal as you see fit.”

We played through the entire piece without stopping. This is the usual practice, to let the composer hear it in its entirety. And then we’d work through the piece, asking questions, giving suggestions, etc.

One of my secret games with composers is to see if they can tell if I’ve misplayed a note. In a piece full of accidentals like this one, it’s not clear if certain accidentals are meant to be or deliberately left out.

Bar 12 did not indicate a C# as was the case in the previous measure. I had wondered whether there should have been a C# otherwise I would expect a courtesy “natural” to avoid confusion. I played as written, but Gijs stopped me. The C-natural in the bass sounded odd.

“Please add the sharp, just like the previous bar.”

After the second group of clusters in the guitar coinciding with a long bass trill in the piano, a new pattern emerged in bar 31. The composer asked the guitarist to play the new phrase melodically. “Put a slur over it. Can you play it legato?”

This meant I should lead into it melodically too, i.e. add a slur and make it feel like we’re talking to each other. Indeed until now, we were so set on playing the right notes, in the right tempo, at the right time, making the right accents, in the right dynamics, that we hadn’t a clue about the dialogue between the two instruments.

We could view the piece as two people talking or trying to have a conversation. I begin with a dramatic statement in bar one. The guitar attempts to say, “And I have also been …” but gets cut off by two huge sfz (suddenly very loud) chords of mine, as though saying, “I’m not done yet!” I start again, as before. My two gigantic sfz chords cut him off just as he tries to react. I continue like a soliloquy. He tries to empathise but is drowned out. When I pause to breathe, he gets his chance. He squeezes and wheezes a string of fast notes in ff desperate to be heard finally.

After a lot of exciting to and fro, the guitar bangs away on all 6-strings while the piano trills away on the lowest G#.

Here is where the melodic section begins, a gentle mp quint climb. But this melodic, legato section is short-lived. Ten measures later, both instruments pound away, 6-note chords on the guitar against 5-note clusters on both hands for the piano in ff. Either they are both mad or both wanting to get attention.

Six bars later, they’re back making melodic music again.

Connecting the “abstract” to the “dance” is an “adagio.” The composer wanted us to make it even slower than the indicated metronome tempo. “Make the half-note a 42,” he said.

We added poco rit to end small sections and crescendo’s where necessary. It was like adding extra colours to a finished work, with the creator’s consent, of course. We rounded the lines, smoothed out the shades, and made this section a true adagio, a relaxing contrast from the “abstract.”

I was eager to throw myself into the “dance” with a full blown allegro, quarter note = 120, as indicated. The guitarist complained that it was too fast for him. [Ha! I could do it and I was unstoppable.] To my disappointment, the composer asked that we slow it down to an easy quarter note = 112.

“That sounds better,” he said.

Perhaps the composer was sympathetic since he was a guitarist himself. I nearly sulked at the guitarist’s grin.

Much to my chagrin, I saw the benefits of taking it slightly more slowly. At this tempo we could express the accented notes which were not simultaneous for guitar and piano. Suddenly I heard something else. It was no longer a race to see how fast we could play it, but an intricate dance, like the kind of interlocking in minimalist music I played in gamelan ensembles.

Our rehearsal with the composer brought new insights to the performance of this piece. With fresh understanding, we now have to get into the piece for its premiere on 3rd May in Spain!