Piano Music

A Composer's Travel Journal (8)

- Piano Music -

In 1996, I began to work on a series of piano pieces, each not too long, each focusing on a particular idea. I hoped that working on these pieces might expand or enlarge certain aspects of my musical/compositional awareness. So they are, in a sense, etudes, or, as they eventually came to be called, studies, for both the pianist and the composer.

In writing "Piano Study 1" (1997), I was concerned with the way two lines of music might be layered. Avoiding harmony and counterpoint, I wanted to combine layers of music without losing the transparency of the sound. I found it interesting that, if the different lines had common notes, and I sustained these common notes, a third layer resulted. The challenge for the pianist was a continuing overlapping and juxtaposition of the hands.

In 1999 I wrote "Rain Study", which is based on the Korean melody "Sanyombul". The words to the song are: "The sun that sets will rise again tomorrow. A life that ends will never return”. Although springing from an idea that is similar to the one at the heart of "Piano Study 1", "Rain Study" deals with much more complex layers of music. I found that the best way to put this complexity down on the page was to use "spacial" notation, where the pianist determines where each note should be played not by counting out beats, but by relating the spacing and flow of the sounding notes to their graphic appearance.

"Piano Study 2" (2001) was written for a concert at the Schoenberg Center in Vienna. Using pitches and textures from Schoenberg's Op. 19 piano pieces, I wrote subtly varying versions of the same line for the hands to play simultaneously. This piece also uses spacial notation and, as in the first half of "Rain Study", the pianist decides the dynamics. So each performance of the piece by a particular pianist can be different, and the piece will sound very different in the hands of different pianists.

"Piano Study 3" (2002) was commissioned by the Los Angeles consortium Piano Spheres. The pianist Susan Svrcek had taken an interest in my music, and I wrote the piece for her. It's a set of variations on a simple Norwegian melody that describes the physical appearance and character of a girl named Marcan Covcona. Such a melody is sung without announcing who is being referred to, yet the intended person would recognize herself in it. I was fascinated by the simple, direct, honest nature of the song and tried to write music that was permeated by it. Susan gave the first performance of the piece in Pasadena, and arrives tonight in Korea to play the piece in Taechoen and Seoul.

Yesterday, I made a trip to the folk drama museum in Kongju, in Choongcheong province. Displayed there are collections of masks, an exhibit on kut (shamanistic rituals), and a collection of farming tools. Ordinary people, not artists, performed the Korean Gamyungeuk (mask dance) and Inhyunggeuk (puppet theatre) as an integral part of their difficult life, not as an art form.

I don't discuss philosophy, religion, or even music with my pansori teacher (who has never had any formal education). I just observe the way she practices, performs and communicates - with many different kinds of people. I wonder about the difference between music performed by musicians living in a community of musicians and other artists, and traditional music and theatre performed after a day of work in the town's common fields. There's a difference between the pretty fish in a fish tank and the fish swimming in the ocean.

I learn from what many different sorts of people tell me after they've heard my music. I don't listen to them because I want to know what changes to make in my music, but because I want to hear what they have to say. I listen to them just as they listen to my music.

I'm looking for a way to write piano music that is simple and direct, and that can communicate to anyone who might appreciate Inhyunggeuk or Gamyungeuk. At the same time, I'm interested in new sounds, new ways of playing the piano and new relationships between pianist and composer. It seems that Koreans are making a great effort to preserve this national treasure of traditional music and I wonder if this works as well for music as it does for animals and insects in a scientist's collection. Trying to preserve a tradition is like trying to block the flow of a stream with your fingers, or maybe like trying to grasp an avocado pit.

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