Whale of a Piano Piece

My contribution to the “Wail of the Voice” concert at Penn this Wednesday is a set of Piano Variations, to be played by pianist Gregory deTurck. (More about the concert here, here, and here.) The piece is a piano-only version of the first movement of my Sonata-Fantasia, a work for piano and synthesizer that I wrote for Lambert Orkis about 12 years ago. I wrote a substantial post about the Variations and the Sonata-Fantasia a while back, so this time I’ll offer the program note and listing of the variations, with some notes on the pieces that stand in the shadows, so to speak, of each variation. A good many of these are pieces I have performed, or at least practiced a good deal, including works by Bach, Chopin, Schubert, Crumb, Messiaen, Monroe Couper, George Perle, and Don Martino; if you spend that much time with a piece, it seems inevitable that it will show up in your own music in one way or another, at least in my experience. (Wernick, Crumb, Perle and Davidovsky – all mentioned below -  were also teachers of mine.) Jonathan Harvey has written of how a composer can start to disappear as one notes the traces of other musics in his or her work. That disappearance happens in every piece, but in this one more than most.

Piano Variations (2006)

Prelude fantastico, come una improvvisazione

Tema semplice, ma espressivo e con poco rubato
The theme is laid out in SATB texture; probably comes from teaching Theory I too many times.

Variation I sognando, flessibile
A generic Chopin nocturne texture with eighth note arpeggiation of the harmony in the left hand, lyrical tune in the right. There’s a lengthy trill that becomes a double trill – perhaps from the Barcarolle?

Variation II scampering; leggiero
The broken chords, alternating hands and darting up and down the keyboard, somehow remind me of Schumann, though I can’t point to a specific piece.

Variation III con fuoco
The stream of parallel dissonant chords in the treble recalls Messiaen, though the rhythm is simpler than what you would find in the piece my piano teacher called “Give My Regards to Jesus”.

Variation IV moderato, flowing
A two-voice canon with a free bass; this is the texture of the canonic pieces in the Goldberg Variations.

Variation V moderato; like a mechanical toy

Variation VI sempre delicato e legato
The steady thirty-second notes might suggest a Chopin etude.

Variation VII andante; a bit tipsy
The alternation of bass/chord/bass/chord might remind you of ragtime or stride piano, but the loopy right hand reflects a personal association. My friend Monroe Couper, who died far too young, had written a pair of piano rags that I performed several times. The first combined fairly straightforward rag rhythms with the harmonic language of early Berg, say, the Op. 2 songs. The second one, called “Iron Macaroons” showed some influence of his teacher, Ralph Shapey, with tricky rhythms that fought the underlying 2/4, and increasingly pointillistic textures rocketing all over the keyboard. My variation is not as extreme as Monroe’s rag, but it is indebted to his imaginative piece.

Interlude largo, contemplativo
A very slow, very soft piece, entirely in the treble register, with the sustain pedal held down throughout, recalling some moments in Crumb’s piano music, such as the “Crucifixus” in the first book of Makrokosmos.

Variation VIII allegretto
This variation is a take-off on the Schubert Impromptu in A-flat, and is the only variation with an actual quotation of its source. The Schubertian broken chords are complemented by parallel tritones in the left hand (marking out 4 pulses against the right hand’s three), something suggested by passages in George Perle‘s piano music.

Variation IX pompous, a little grotesque
Richard Wernick has moments in his first piano sonata (among other works) where a monophonic texture is registrally exploded, with individual notes sounding in different octaves in succession. There is something like that here, though there are two voices, one ascending, one descending, each moving from one end of the keyboard to the other.

Variation X molto vivace
This is a twelve-tone movement, indebted to Donald Martino, whose masterful Fantasies and Impromptus I have performed.

Variation XI grand; in romantic style
19th Century composer Friedrich Kalkbrenner was known for a tricky piano texture in which both hands played arpeggios while the tune was played by the thumbs in the middle register. Though I can’t say I know Kalkbrenner’s music, I tried that kind of texture here; it could just as easily be understood as a Lisztian strategy.

Variation XII senza tempo; quasi cadenza (like a parody of the preceeding variation)
In the piano/synth version, the parody aspect was more obvious, since the synthesizer was set up to provide a multiplicity of arpeggios in response to each one played by the keyboardist – a kind of absurd multiplication of the texture, which I have only hinted at in the piano solo version.

Variation XIII cryptic
The minutely constructed attacks and decays of this variation, using silently depressed keys to reveal sympathetic vibrations, are indebted to the jeweler’s craft approach of Mario Davidovsky to the electronic medium.

Variation XIV presto
The very specific model for the steady sixteenth-note motion is Chopin’s Etude in c-sharp minor, Op. 10, #4.

Postlude fantastico, come una improvvisazione


Program Note

When Lambert Orkis asked me for a work for piano and synthesizer, I knew I would eventually adapt at least a portion of the piece for the more practical medium of piano alone. This set of 14 variations on an original theme served as the first movement of the Sonata-Fantasia I wrote for Lambert. The piece is framed by a prelude and postlude, with a brief interlude at the midpoint of the set.

Lambert wanted me to combine piano with synthesizer as an emblem of the keyboard’s future. Yet, ghosts from the piano’s history haunt these variations as they sometimes take as models keyboard textures created by past composers, both remote in time and more recent. The variations are not only on a theme, but on the very notion of what the piano itself can be.


There’s a review of Lambert Orkis’s recording of the Sonata-Fantasia here. (The disk also features Dick Wernick’s superb Second Sonata.) You can get a peek at a few pages from the Piano Variations here.

One thought on “Whale of a Piano Piece

  1. Pingback: Scenes from Whaling Trip « Secret Geometry – James Primosch's blog

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