David Rakowski: The Piano Etude Guy
David Rakowski combines hardcore intellectual rigor with unabashed humor and, at times, pure silliness.
I still remember my first encounter with David Rakowski. It was soon after NewMusicBox first launched on the web and I had yet to hear any of his music. He sent me an email in which he made some extremely erudite comment about something somewhere on the site—I don’t remember what at this point—but he couched it in a hysterically-funny joke, which sadly I also no longer recall. The one thing I do still remember thinking was, “Who on earth is this guy?” and—once I figured out that he was a composer—”What does his music sound like?”
A cornucopia of compositional treats awaited me which, like that initial email, combine hardcore intellectual rigor with unabashed humor and, at times, pure silliness. Neither of Amy Dissanayake’s two amazing Bridge CDs devoted to Rakowski’s piano etudes had yet been released—in fact a number of the etudes she plays on those discs had yet to be written. But I did track down a handful expertly played by Marilyn Nonken and Teresa McCollough, whose musings about music are familiar to folks who visit our Chatter pages. Then I discovered his zany website.
While I enjoyed what little of his music I knew, I was totally floored by how clever his writing was and, always being on the lookout for NewMusicBox contributors, endeavored to get him to write for us. Seven years ago I convinced him to share with us his thoughts on music criticism. Then I learned that he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for a wind band piece, so I asked him to share his experiences writing for band. The more music of his I got familiar with, the more I wanted to know about how he put it together. And the more titles of his I learned about, the more I wanted to know about why he used such funny titles, so I asked him to write an article about titles. At the beginning of this year, he also wrote a deeply moving eulogy for his one-time teacher Daniel Pinkham.
It seemed the one thing left for me to do was to actually meet this guy and have a real sit-down conversation with him; all we had to do was figure out a way for us to meet up. These days David divides his time between Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine. And I don’t know how to drive. But luckily I convinced him to drive down to where I live where we spent a leisurely afternoon chatting about music, life, and other uncontrollable obsessions, and eventually we even took a stroll in the woods, albeit the mile-long woods of Northern Manhattan.