Tag: solo piano music

Six Great Film Composers Tell Their Own Stories in Music for Solo Piano

When planning a recital, or a recording for that matter, it’s important to me to commingle works by composers who have a reason for being together, who share a connecting link of some sort. In the past I’ve combined John Adams with Terry Riley, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Steven Stucky with Witold Lutosławski, and Olivier Messiaen with Kaija Saariaho.

It’s important to me to commingle works by composers who have a reason for being together

Montage: Great Film Composers and the Piano was just such a commingling, and a collaboration that was bound to happen one day given my years of living in Los Angeles and working with composers. In the first article of this series, I sang the praises of L.A. as a place to live and work as a musician. Outside of our prodigiously enlightened Los Angeles Philharmonic that engages fulltime musicians, it’s always been possible here for freelance players to keep very busy in the city’s many orchestras, opera companies, chamber series, and film studios, and even to have solo careers. They’ve been able do all of it in a place where there is no cognitive dissonance in having worked with both Pierre Boulez and John Williams.

Montage had its beginnings in 2011, when Bruce Broughton, a composer best known for his work in film and television and the recipient of 24 Emmy nominations and 10 wins among other awards, sent me a substantial surprise gift: his Five Pieces for Piano. The suite comprises five boldly delineated character pieces written in the exceptionally pianistic language of a composer who happens to be an accomplished pianist.

Around that time, I was preparing a recital for Tanglewood’s 2012 Festival of Contemporary Music, and had asked John Williams, who is among other things an annual headliner at Tanglewood, if he might have time to write a little something for it. We had talked for years about the possibility of a new piano piece, and I now had a perfect time and place at which to program it. I assured him, repeatedly, that even just a single page of music would do, just so that I could represent him on my program. In due course, he produced a short piece for me to play as an encore: “Phineas and Mumbette,” a richly imagined conversation between jazz legend Phineas Newborn, Jr., and Mumbette, a Berkshires-based slave who sued for her freedom in 1781 and won. And the piece was indeed only a single page of music:

From the Twitter feed of music engraver Joanne Kane showing four people holding John Williams's one-page solo piano score with a closer detail of the score below.

John Williams produced “just” a single page for Gloria’s Tanglewood recital. (Kudos to his copyists at Joanne Kane Music…this copy is now signed and framed on Gloria’s wall.)

Following that summer, with the pieces by John Williams and Bruce Broughton continuing to virtually stare at me from my piano every day, an enticing theme for a future recital, anchored by two eminent composers of worldwide renown for their film music, was presenting itself, and I was finding it impossible to ignore.

There was one minor glitch. Because the timings of the two pieces were far short of a full program, I would need to somehow convince a few more composers of similar ilk—and similar illustriousness, I hoped—to write additional pieces that would flesh out an eventual evening-length recital.

I approached composers whose film music I admired, and about whom I couldn’t help but wonder how they might write for solo piano. This is how, in addition to the works by Bruce Broughton and John Williams (who composed three additional movements to form a suite entitled Conversations), three new pieces came to be written for me by film music luminaries Don Davis (The Matrix trilogy), Michael Giacchino (Ratatouille, Up, The Incredibles), and Randy Newman (The Natural, Toy Story, Monsters, Inc.). Instead of a new piece, Alexandre Desplat (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Argo, The Grand Budapest Hotel), offered me a recent suite that he had composed for the pianist Lang Lang.

Film composers are always telling someone else’s story, and typically writing for large orchestras.

At the time, these six composers had collectively garnered 72 Oscar nominations and 8 wins (the numbers are both higher now). All six had written concert works in the past, but all had largely bypassed writing for solo piano. That’s precisely what interested me. These composers are acclaimed and awarded for their brilliance at managing multiple parameters with regard to style, narrative, tone, and timing. But they are always telling someone else’s story, and typically writing for large orchestras.

What would happen if everyone just left them alone to write a concert piece—for the piano, an instrument that just about every composer regards as a consequential challenge given its monumental repertoire and potential to reveal one’s truest, unadorned voice?

Randy Newman with Gloria Cheng at the piano.

Randy Newman with Gloria Cheng

Over the course of 2012-2013 the pieces arrived. In the cases of Don Davis and Michael Giacchino, all at once; with Randy Newman and John Williams, one movement at a time. The final steps prior to the November premiere were to coach with each of the composers and collect a program note in their own words about their pieces. The concert, presented by the Piano Spheres series, drew not only our loyal new music attendees but throngs of the composers’ fans. Except for the Paris-based Alexandre Desplat, the composers were in attendance and being surrounded like rock stars. I began the program with Bruce Broughton’s bracing Five Pieces, followed by Michael Giacchino’s wistful Composition 430, Don Davis’s modernist Surface Tension, Alexandre Desplat’s impressionist-tinged Trois Études, Randy Newman’s songful Family Album: Homage to Alfred, Emil, and Lionel Newman, and John Williams’ jazz-spiked Conversations. Many listeners found it fascinating to note whose piano pieces resembled their film music and whose did not.

Given the prominence of the six composers, it seemed inevitable and necessary to document their pieces on a recording. Harmonia Mundi took an interest. Two days of recording were booked with Grammy-winning producer Judith Sherman in Herbert Zipper Hall at the Colburn School, the venue in which I had performed the concert.

As it turns out, the recording dates of Easter Sunday 2014 and the Monday after proved to be unexpectedly auspicious. Five of the six composers would be in town and said that they could and would attend the recording sessions. Only Alexandre Desplat was scheduled to be away from Los Angeles on those dates, but would be back soon afterwards.

When would a convergence of such celebrated composers working on the same project ever occur again? That’s when I got the crazy idea to make a documentary film. I imagined a film that would capture our interactions during the recording sessions, offer interviews with each of the composers, and chronicle the arduous process of getting our record “in the can.” A Kickstarter campaign drew close to 100 supporters whose generous donations provided major funding for the enterprise. Credit for coming up with Montage as the title for the project, encompassing both the album and film, goes to John Williams.

Gloria Cheng Montage CD Cover

The full story of recording this CD and ending up with a documentary about it would take many more paragraphs. It was an immense undertaking, and if amassing and practicing the collection for concert performance had been a challenge, managing the CD recording along with a film shoot presented multitudes more.

I had recorded four CDs already with Judith Sherman and knew how that would proceed; she would be tough and meticulous, and would work tirelessly with me towards a final edit for the CD release. I had engaged the noted film music authority Jon Burlingame to write a liner booklet essay that would accompany the composers’ own notes. My CD agenda was predictable and all set to go. But I knew nothing about making a film, and knew few people who did.

When one lives in Los Angeles, one finds “industry” people on every corner.

Luckily, when one lives in Los Angeles, one finds “industry” people on every corner. Not quite knowing how or where to start, I applied my Kickstarter funds towards hiring a next door neighbor, a different next door neighbor’s nephew, and that next door neighbor’s nephew’s friend! They organized the film crews for the recording sessions and also covered the follow-up interviews at Amblin Entertainment with John Williams and at my home with Alexandre Desplat, who had missed the recording sessions.

John Williams with Gloria Cheng

John Williams with Gloria Cheng.

In all, the crews had generated hundreds of hours of footage from multiple-camera shoots. Given the brilliant direction by my neighbor Joey Forsyte who supervised her crew as a fly on the wall during those long hours of recording takes, the film was assembled and polished over the course of two years by the gifted team at Breakwater Studios. Much precious, one-of-a-kind footage did not make it into the final film as it was edited to less than a half-hour; a quiet tête-à- tête between Randy Newman and John Williams reminiscing about the old days at 20th Century Fox sadly got cut. Nonetheless, our documentary won numerous festival awards, has aired on PBS SoCal six times, and, to our immense shock and joy, won the 2018 Los Angeles Area Emmy for Independent Programming.

The documentary broaches a wide range of topics. How do these composers vary their creative processes when writing for the concert hall instead of for a movie? “If a director wants you to turn left,” remarks Bruce Broughton in the film, “you’re advised to turn left. Writing a piece like this, I am the director; the piece is the film.” Most of the composers confess to being decidedly challenged by writing for piano. “There’s no hiding…you do worry more about every single note,” says Michael Giacchino. “It made me nervous,” confides Randy Newman. “I’m not ready to write again for piano,” vows Alexandre Desplat, with a laugh. “It took me a lot of time to figure it out!” The film also exposes the laboriousness—both onstage and in the booth—of recording a CD. We had a few laughs during those two days, but there was mostly fierce focus from us all and, in one of the film’s most talked-about moments, occasional frustration.

John Williams sums it up by saying, “Gloria has broken the mold by inviting film composers to be exactly not that, to be simply composers.” It is indeed the music itself that reveals a lesser-known but vibrant, expressive world inside of these six composers—an alternative, more intimate side of them that is often eclipsed by the spectacular popularity of their film music.

I find a strikingly clear voice in each of the pieces, each an unmistakable depiction of the person who wrote it. What I had hoped to learn by embarking on this project was: What happens when these composers, freed of the demands placed on them by a film, confront the challenge of composing for one of the most difficult instruments to write for? Although Montage: Great Film Composers couldn’t possibly provide all of the answers, we do get a little closer to finding out.

Garlands for Steven Stucky

After the passing of Steven Stucky on Valentine’s Day of 2016, Christopher Rouse, Steve’s friend of 40 years, wrote on this website:

I don’t think I’m alone in seeing Steve as the sort of person we all wish we were. Even had he lacked the musical genius he did in fact possess, his way of living his life and treating all with kindness and respect would have been a model worth emulating for anyone. Loved by so many, we have lost not only a great composer, but the dearest of friends. I wonder how we will be able to go on without him.

Steve died much too soon—and for so many of us, unacceptably—at the age of 66. His unusually aggressive brain cancer had been diagnosed only three months earlier.

Steven Stucky died much too soon—and for so many of us, unacceptably—at the age of 66.

I met Steve in 1988 upon his arrival at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where I had been working steadily as an “extra” alongside the redoubtable principal keyboard player, Zita Carno. Steve’s tenure there as resident composer and new music advisor lasted for 21 years, the longest such affiliation between a composer and an American orchestra. I was a frequent participant during most of those years in much of the new music programming for the LA Phil’s orchestral series and Green Umbrella concerts. Steve, having largely determined much of that programming, was present at every rehearsal, always exuding his special combination of bemused, gracious, self-deprecating erudition. Over time we became friends, and his interests became my interests. As the foremost authority on the music of Witold Lutosławski, he was my guiding light as I prepared my CD Piano Music of Salonen, Stucky, and Lutosławski. The 2009 Grammy Award bestowed on me for that recording is an honor that I owe in no small part to Steve.

The day after Steve died, Deborah Borda, then-President of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, phoned to tell me about an April tribute concert already being organized by the Philharmonic. Several of Steve’s friends and former students were being invited to write short piano pieces (one or two minutes each) in Steve’s memory, and she asked me to organize the pianists. There would ultimately be six works, by Fang Man, Anders Hillborg, Magnus Lindberg, James Matheson, Joseph Phibbs, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, interspersed with music by Steve and Lutosławski. The pianists, all associated with Piano Spheres, Los Angeles’ piano series devoted to new music, would be, respectively, Mark Robson, Susan Svrček, Steven Vanhauwaert, Nic Gerpe, Vicki Ray, and myself.

Following the announcement of the upcoming program, I heard from a few of Steve’s countless composer friends who were expressing a wish to dedicate a piano homage of their own. Though I was not empowered to add them to the Philharmonic’s program, I knew that I couldn’t ignore their heartfelt offers, that I would be in touch afterwards, and that this had the makings of a very good idea that would embody all the goodness that Steve had brought to so many of our lives. Later that spring I began inviting them and others to contribute additional pieces to the initial set of six for a collection that would be called Garlands for Steven Stucky. With the original six pieces having been such powerful declarations of love and friendship, and knowing how many more of Steve’s eminent, emotionally devastated friends and students would want to honor him similarly, I felt that a CD would be the necessary endgame. Unsurprisingly, my wish list of essential invitees, compiled with the help of Christopher Rouse, Donald Crockett, and Steve’s widow, Kristen Stucky, grew very, very long. I had to limit the number to just 24 more composers who then wrote their hearts out to honor Steve in the way they do best.

The Garlands

Julia Adolphe: Snowprints
Julian Anderson: Capriccio
Charles Bodman Rae: Steven Stucky in memoriam
Chen Yi: In Memory of Steve
Louis Chiappetta: This is no less curious
Donald Crockett: Nella Luce
Brett Dean: Hommage à Lutosławski
Fang Man: That raindrops have hastened the falling flowers: in memory of Steven Stucky
Gabriela Frank: Harawi-cito de charanguista ciego
Daniel S. Godfrey: Glas
John Harbison: Waltz
Anders Hillborg: Just a Minute
Pierre Jalbert: Inscription
Jesse Jones: Reverie
William Kraft: Music for Gloria (In Memoriam Steven Stucky)
Hannah Lash: November
David Lefkowitz: In Memoriam: Steven Stucky
Magnus Lindberg: Fratello
David Liptak: Epitaph
Steven Mackey: A Few Things, in memory of Steve
James Matheson: CHAPTER I: In which our hero dies and encounters Palestrina, Brahms, Debussy, Ligeti, Lutosławski and other dead loves; looks out to see the entire universe before him, and prepares to visit all of the amazing shit therein
Colin Matthews: some moths for Steve
Harold Meltzer: Children’s Crusade
Eric Nathan: In memoriam
Joseph Phibbs: in memory of Steven Stucky
Kay Rhie: Interlude
Christopher Rouse: Muistomerkki
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Iscrizione
Michael Small: Debussy Window
Stephen Andrew Taylor: Green Trees Are Bending
Andrew Waggoner: …and Maura Brought Me Cookies (Remembering Steve)
Judith Weir: Chorale, For Steve

As the recording was shaping up to be a collective portrait of friendship, I invited two more of Steve’s trusted collaborators, Peabody Southwell (mezzo-soprano) and Carolyn Hove (oboe), to join me on the CD. Together, we close the recording with Steve’s Two Holy Sonnets of Donne (1982), based on John Donne’s defiant, mocking proclamations on the powerlessness of death.

Holding 32 individual, deeply-felt relationships in my hands has been fulfilling beyond words.

For the 32 composers, I imagine that it must have felt hardly possible to write a one- to two-minute piece that expressed all that they wanted to say about Steve. “How could I even begin to capture the depth and quiet intensity of this man?” asks Esa-Pekka Salonen in his liner note. For me, holding 32 such individual, deeply-felt relationships in my hands has been fulfilling beyond words. As reflections on Steve as a friend and teacher, the Garlands are by no means a compilation of mournful dirges. I note many cheery portrayals of him, such as in Julia Adolphe’s reimagining of his “giddy excitement” during composition lessons, Pierre Jalbert’s inclusion of a “fast rhythmic section (Steve’s wit and humor),” and Steven Mackey’s evocation of “the playful banter” that they shared. We also see Steve invoked several times in quotations of his music and of music that he loved, and in opening motives that seem to summon him with the pitches B-flat (si), E-flat (es), and G (sol), representing his initials.

Steven Stucky with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gloria Cheng,

Steven Stucky with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gloria Cheng (photo by Carlos Rodriguez)

Proceeds from our CD sales and royalties will be donated to the Steven Stucky Composer Fellowship Fund. The fund was established by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to honor Steve’s vision of engaging young composers in multi-year educational programs with the orchestra. The Composer Fellowship Program continues to flourish under Program Director Andrew Norman and Teaching Artist Sarah Gibson.

The Garlands project follows another CD honoring Steve, Steven Stucky: Chamber Music, issued a year ago by pianist Xak Bjerken, Steve’s longtime colleague at Cornell, on Open G Records. I believe that I speak for all of us in hoping that we might somehow be sending a thanks to Steve for enriching our lives as he did, and for leaving us with the enduring gifts of his music, his writings, and above all, the unforgettable feast that it was have him as such an extraordinary and exemplary friend.

Garlands for Steven Stucky (Bridge 9509). Photo by Jeffrey Herman.

Speak Now: #45miniatures

Several composers have written eloquently on this site about how the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath have affected their work. They’ve advised that ultimately, no matter how paralyzed they feel, it is time to create, even if their job as composers has now changed. Margaret Atwood wrote a great article about what art can, should, or will be made under the current administration. And she makes a good point when she says that the president won’t even notice, rating his interest in the arts somewhere between zero and negative 10 (on a scale from 1 to 100).

I found myself wondering what I could do, as a performer.

To me, the result of the election was an “unpresidented” [sic] embarrassment on a global level, and continues to be as we all witness the daily barrage of tantrums and tweets. But I found myself wondering what I could do, as a performer. I felt compelled to do something, and regrettably I had not yet read this great article about what many other performers were up to, or discovered projects such as the Activist Songbook or this hilarious piece.

So, late at night on August 9, 2017 (I’m pretty sure it was after reading about North Korea and how “Trump’s ‘Fire and Fury’ Threat Raises Alarms in Asia”), I turned to the one thing I know I can always count on: sarcasm. I posted on Facebook that I was thinking of commissioning a piece called Suite #45, or potentially writing it myself. I listed a humorous set of possible characteristics (which I’ve also listed here):

  • movements limited to 140 notes, 140 measures, 140 phrases, or other permutations of the Twitter character limit
  • erratic shifts of: character, dynamic, articulation, tempo
  • improvisatory sections that do not relate in any way to the thematic material of the piece, or commonly accepted musical practices. In ANY way.
  • playful/childish outbursts, in the form of “heckler chords” or “bad hombre-like non-chord tones” with shocking key area explorations highly encouraged!
  • “tonality-change” denier (i.e. Anti-Modulation) sympathies
  • structural musical elements in no way qualified to be a part of supporting the administration of the composition
  • short, repeated motifs that are expressed vehemently (but not developed), then forgotten by the average listener at crucial later moments when they could change the appreciation/understanding of the piece
  • a blatantly critical and unwavering sense of self-importance, in the face of wide-spread critical disdain, and limited audience base.

It was a moment of comic relief, shared with my friends. It made me feel better, at least temporarily, and then I went to bed.

People loved the idea and encouraged me to actually do it.

But something quite unexpected happened. The next morning, there were a lot of notifications on my phone. People loved the idea and encouraged me to actually do it. Having devoted a significant amount of my own professional career over the past decade to contemporary piano music, both in recital programming and through commissioning projects like American Vernacular: New Music for Solo Piano, it seemed like a natural fit. After some thought, I set up an open “Call for Scores” and changed the name to #45miniatures, combining the hashtag styling of Trump’s favorite social media pastime and a word with obvious double entendre implications.

This call was done entirely on Facebook, and 24 composers (including a violist and a pianist!) responded expressing interest. No one cared about a commissioning fee, though I set up a GoFundMe campaign anyway to try and generate some funds to be distributed equally among the composers. As scores started coming in I was – as I always am – amazed by the creativity and craft of the participating composers.

One piece for speaking pianist takes text from the campaign, punctuating each section with “SAD!” Another combines clusters with an increasingly louder, faster chant of “LOCK HER UP!” and incorporates a Dies Irae recitative. There is a toccata that systematically removes all pitches until only Ds are left.

A palindromic chaconne leads to a “wall” in the middle before reversing itself all the way back to the first note. Text from tweets and speeches feature prominently in many, and musical quotations abound (from “If I Only Had a Brain” to our National Anthem). Some are very serious; some are definitely not. These are just a few; you can read about of the pieces I have received to date here.

However, a few things didn’t sit right. First, I began feeling uncomfortable thinking of the project as “mine” in any sort of singular way. Performers often hold tight to the right for a premiere or first recording, and in many cases this makes sense. But #45miniatures isn’t about me. It is about the music and the message it sends. The mere presence of a body of work in response to this presidency is, in itself, powerful.

#45miniatures isn’t about me. It is about the music and the message it sends.

Second, why should I limit this to composers who happened to have seen the call on my Facebook wall? Many of these people are my friends, but we all know how much is missed on that platform, as Facebook’s algorithms decide what you should see on any given day based on your interactions (or non-interactions) with your friends. Surely there are others who are looking for an outlet like this?

The conclusion I came to was that this really needs to be a collective, open-source project, so I created this #45miniatures website to connect us all. You can read about the project there, and view perusal scores. (Funny story, the sub-heading on the homepage was suggested by the Wix auto template design robots in nanoseconds after seeing my title. I’ve ordered hats, but they are currently held up at customs, due to the trade war.)

Here’s the important part:

Pianists: Want to get involved? Great! You are welcome here. You can peruse any score that I’ve received. See something you like and want to program? Contact the composer and get a score. I don’t have to premiere anything. This music should be programmed and played all over the country and globe. The News/Media section of the website will be a great place to share info about performances and audio/video links.

Composers: Do you have an idea and want to write something after reading this article? Great! Please get in touch. I took everyone who responded to the initial call for scores, and I genuinely welcome as diverse an array of composers as I can possibly have. This is a work in progress, but I would love to eventually see a published book of all the miniatures that come in.

I believe history will be the ultimate judge of this president, but art must be a part of the contemporary response.


Sounds Heard: Meredith Monk—Piano Songs

A couple weeks ago, on Twitter, Alex Temple cut to the chase:

The piano’s most distinctive characteristics—its gratifyingly hammered attack and its koan-like decay—are undeniably bewitching, so much so that a century’s worth of music has piled up devoted to exploring one extreme or the other. (More than a century, really—the difference between early Liszt and late Liszt is, in large part, the difference between fast notes and slow notes.) But you can still run into piano music that takes the middle path, as it were. Meredith Monk: Piano Songs, a new compilation performed by Ursula Oppens and Bruce Brubaker, is one such cache: music that is expressively moderate, which is to say, it finds expressive possibilities in the act of moderating between extremes.

Meredith Monk: Piano Songs album cover

Buy now:

Monk’s most notable mediation is between the poles of minimalist repetition and modernist continuous variation. The music is almost always ostinato-based, and each piece maintains a pretty consistent mood and modality; but different melodic cells come and go, the tiles get slightly bigger or smaller, the texture will stack up in layers only to circle back to sparseness—there’s a kind of Brownian motion built into even the simplest structures. Instead of sitting in her rooms, Monk moves through them. It lends shorter pieces, like the shuffling, unsettled “Tower,” a certain density and longer pieces, like the bright and determined “Parlour Games,” a sense of travel, of considerable covered ground, even as the themes recapitulate and round off.
There’s also give-and-take between strict, locked-in musical processes and a more unpredictable theatrical sensibility. “Urban march (shadow)” is understated, gray, then suddenly accelerating into a crush of flinty, crunchy harmonies. “Paris” throws a brash tumble of pawed clusters into the midst of its Satie-like leisure. “Folkdance” opens with rustic flair—the pianists clapping and shouting in mutual accompaniment—balancing the level of sophisticated harmonic polish that emerges by the end. Monk is an indelibly dramatic composer: not melodramatic or grandiose, but rather attuned to the rhythms of entrances and exits, expositions and reveals.

This collection is, at least partially, a cover album—the swaying, vaguely jazzy “Windows in 7’s,” for instance, composed for pianist Nurit Tilles, first appeared on Monk’s album Do You Be; “St. Petersburg Waltz” (also written for Tilles) was on Volcano Songs. Four of the selections—“Tower” (the earliest piece here, from 1971), “Parlour Games,” “urban march (shadow)” (from the opera mercy), and “totentanz” (from the album Impermanence)—were arranged by Brubaker. Given such a range of vintages and sources, the collection proves remarkably cohesive. And much of that, I think, is Monk’s inclination to use the piano as a tool, a means to an end, the sound of it a vehicle for ideas; the pieces refracted through the piano are congruent with the pieces conceived for it.

But, then again, the whole album sounds, at the same time, completely idiomatic. The timbre suits the music, and the music suits the timbre; throughout, Oppens and Brubaker find ample opportunity for expressive variations of touch and tempo. (The recording sessions came after a concert performance of the same program in Boston’s Jordan Hall, and at least a little of that live, why-not interpretive freedom made it on to the recording.) In the liner notes, Monk cites Mompou, Satie, and Bartók as early favorites, and all might be heard to be putting in guest appearances: Mompou’s haze in the “St. Petersburg Waltz,” Satie’s lazy insouciance in “Paris.” The oldest influence, Bartók’s resonant dissonance, pervades “totentanz,” the most recent music on the recording. Old and new, traditional and experimental, memory and transformation always appear as dance partners. Within all those competing forces, Monk’s music seems to hover at a point of balance.