Since lockdowns cascaded across Europe and America, I have been hosting an online, interactive song session called “Three Chord Thursdays.” Each Thursday, we ukulele enthusiasts (whether vocalists or instrumentalists) meet for an hour to share songs of a particular theme, category, or era. It’s entirely free to join by registering in advance for the login/password details. Volunteers submit their requests to perform in advance. We aim to fit up to 10 songs for the hour-long session in Zoom.
We welcome everybody everywhere in the world. Restated, that’s anybody anywhere in the world.
Ostinatrio, a minimalist piece written originally for three recorders in 2005, receives an electronic makeover in 2014 and once more for wind trio and piano ensemble.
What a delight it was to receive a request through Twitter to share a variation of my music!
I wrote Ostinatrio for three recorders and revised it for oboe after its premiere in Utrecht, Netherlands. Like most of my music, I forgot about it until I heard the electronic version which is a lot more, hmmm, what shall I say, relevant? for film music? exciting to play? for my piano ensemble?
After you’ve spent time hearing of, reading about, listening to, discussing with, talking about, and writing about something, you become familiar with it. When you finally get to see or experience the real thing, you value and appreciate it more.
When audio recording technology was invented, there was fear that fewer people would attend live performances.
When sheet music printing became possible, there was fear that people would learn the music and compete with professional performers.
The arrival of the Internet, mobile telephony, smart phones, iPads, Youtube, and Pandora radio made recorded performances searchable and easily downloadable.
All this helped to familiarize listeners and popularize music, composers, and performers.
What does this do for live performances? The audience becomes more informed and more appreciative. It increases the value of attending live concerts.
Radio shows, TV shows, written reviews, and blogs about music and musicians all serve to inform and educate.
We, as the audience, can choose better than before.
Most of us find comfort in the familiar. How much more familiar can we be of a subject that we’ve read about, heard of, discussed with, talked about, and perhaps even written about.
A music, like a movie, a painting, a novel, or any other creative output, requires that process of familiarization before it achieves value to the listener.
Musicians meet each other through music and collaboration. Anne Ku performed and recorded the Impromptu for solo piano before she met the composer Kim Diehnelt in Chicago.
As a sightreader, I have an insatiable appetite to discover new music. Now and then, I receive a score that I want to sightread and perform for others. Such was one by the Chicago-based conductor Kim Diehnelt. Her music preceded her.
This is one way musicians get to know each other — through music.
At first I thought she was a conductor. She thought I was an agent or arts manager. Once I premiered her piece in Maui, I then got to know her as a composer.
Over an afternoon snack at Chicago O’Hare Airport recently, the first time we met face to face, I asked her about this piece.
The Impromptu was born out of a desire to capture a moment. Although a unique moment, it may very well be one we all have experienced. A friend shared a brief description of a morning scene where Bach’s Prelude No. 1 flows from the radio, a glance towards the piano where this piece sits open, a memory from long ago surfaces. In a flash, all these combine into a new awareness of how the current self may meet the tasks of the day.
It is the moments of Between-ness that fascinate me. I hope performers – and listeners – will savor the ‘between-ness’ created with the appearance of each new note.
Because I love the wine-tasting approach to music, the back page of the score has remarks similar to a wine label – “Austere counterpoint of quiet, timeless reflection punctuated by pauses of full, warm harmony. A captured moment – it lingers in the morning air.”
What’s interesting is that when Kim Diehnelt composes an ensemble work, she actually sees the score as an ensemble — not from a keyboard like many composers do. We discussed the importance of readability for playability down to the size of the measure. If it’s too long, the player may think it’s slower than usual. As a conductor, she knows what she’s looking for and what she wants to hear. When she sits down to compose, she can see it and hear it.
Listen to my recording of Kim Diehnelt’s Impromptu below.
Impromptu by Kim Diehnelt, as interpreted by Anne Ku (recorded on Steinway Grand model A, 1909 New York) in Utrecht, Netherlands, 4th August 2011 (mp3)
Piano duets often have origins elsewhere. Martin Blessinger’s Capriccio for piano, 4 hands came from the 3rd movement of a violin and viola piece. Listen to an extract recorded by Anne Ku (primo) and Carol Ruiz Gandia (secundo).
It has been nearly five months since the deadline of my Call for Scores has passed and 3.5 months since the Piano Soiree in San Francisco where several of the piano duets were played. And it has taken THAT long to find another pianist to study, play, and record a duet.
During my 2.5 months in Utrecht, Netherlands (end May – mid August 2011), I actively sought pianists to sightread the 42 duets from 30 composers. Aside from those too boring or too difficult, there were many candidates for a replay. After gauging the sightreading experience with different pianists, I decided which ones deserved another re-evaluation.
Martin Blessinger‘s Capriccio is a fun piece that challenged me enough to recruit someone else with whom to prepare and play together. Below is an extract of the recording on my Steinway Grand in Utrecht, Netherlands with me as primo and Carol Ruiz Gandia as secundo.
This piece is a transcription of a movement from Tapas, a suite of short pieces I wrote a few years ago for violin and viola duo. It struck me that one of the middle movements of the work, Capriccio Pizzicato, would work particularly well for four-hand piano. This is an ensemble that has always appealed to me for personal reasons. I was a piano major as an undergraduate, and some of my fondest memories are of reading through four-hand piano works with other members of the piano studio at SUNY Stony Brook.
In studying for this piece, I focussed only on getting the notes correct, labeling ledger lined notes and polite accidentals whenever possible and necessary for clarity. When we got together to play, we decided to make a small comma after the third quarter note in bar 6 because it felt like a breath was needed. These are decisions that can only be made after studying a piece (not sightreading).
I thought I had the difficult part until I saw what the secundo had to do in bar 33 and 34 while I played nothing. Spanish pianist Carol Ruiz Gandia decided to memorise those octaval 16-th notes while I stayed put. Moving the page distracted her. So I waited until bar 36 before I moved the page.
We decided to add some dynamics in bar 58 where it was already forte. We went back down to a mezzo forte and made another crescendo to a forte in bar 60. These dynamics added to the piece. In bar 61, we went back down to a piano and steadily climbed until a big fortissimo in bar 64. The secundo immediately dropped back to a mezzo piano (subito) and I joined her to crescendo to another fortissimo in bar 65. And again. These dynamics are essential to make this piece exciting to play and listen to.
On top of page 7, we retracted to piano and then pianissimo as we descended.
Listen to the 3rd movement Capriccio Pizzicato of Tapas from which this duet came. I rather think the entire 4 movement piece for violin and viola could be arranged for piano duet. I particularly enjoy playing fugues in duets.
In the meantime, having discovered its origins, I will share it with my violin and viola friends in Bristol, where just a year ago I was sightreading piano trios and quartets in their newly renovated Georgian home.
Conversations in the Garden is a new recording of a new 4 hands on 1 piano duet of John Bilotta, played and recorded by Anne Ku (primo) and Carol Ruiz Gandia (secundo) on a Steinway Grand model A in Utrecht, Netherlands. Listen.
Good music travels. In January 2011, I announced a “Call for Scores” from Maui. John Bilotta composed his new piano duet in San Francisco where I met him for the first time in May 2011. Carol Ruiz Gandia and I recorded it in Utrecht, Netherlands in August 2011.
Today, having just returned to Maui, I found that the recording Carol and I did of John Bilotta’s piano duet “Conversations in the Garden” has appeared on his youtube channel below. Forget trying to get a small mp3 version loaded on my website. This is much better. [Note: if you can’t see the video below, click on this link.]
On a sunny Thursday morning (4th August 2011), Carol played the secundo (bass) and I the primo (treble) part of San Francisco-based composer John Bilotta’s “Conversations in the Garden.” We had chosen the parts a few days earlier and practised them for the purposes of recording. We recorded it on a ZOOM hand-held recorder in my home in Utrecht, Netherlands.
Carol is starting a new house concert series from her home in Tuinwijk part of Utrecht. Tuinwijk translates to “garden village.” We were at Utrecht Conservatory together, and it’s nice to continue our collaboration even after graduation. I will be writing more about her new concert series soon.
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.
We managed to record the first 50 measures. The rest, we concluded, we had to study to give it the sound it deserved.
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).
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.
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.
The secundo supports the melody in the primo through wavelike arpeggios.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.