A few months ago, when the days were long and the weather warm (remember that?) Rolf Hind asked me if I would be interested in writing a piece for a concert featuring multiple pianos in London. I’ve been asked to participate in some odd projects but I think this one was the strangest. I think in this day and age composers have to be prepared for almost anything; the ability to be flexible is one of those extra things that still isn’t taught in every school and it’s a good skill to acquire. So, with that in mind I thought I’d write about my initial thought process when I started writing the piece.
So, the request with my initial thoughts in italics:
1) Six Pianos Okay, I haven’t written that much for piano, but I suppose that that’s not really a handicap when it comes to writing for six of them. I mean it’s not as if writing for solo violin really gives one a head start when writing for string quartet.
2) Percussion: OK now we’re talking! I’ve written a lot of percussion music.
3) Audience Participation. The audience is going to be asked to bring along percussion that they can play as part of the piece. Wow…
4) Built-In Flexibilty. It’s in a huge space and the set-up might be variable. Also as it’s on at the start and the end of the concert some flexibility has to be built-in. Well, now that we’re at it, why not?
Of course I said yes. I love a challenge. The first thing to sort out was how to deal with six pianos. My solution was not to use too much bass; I knew that it would get muddy. I have to say that, even though I didn’t know much multiple piano music my impression of it was that there was a lot of single-hand writing. There are two reasons for this, I think. First, the muddiness issue: single-hand writing just cleans up the texture. Second, because this writing adds to the sense of ensemble. It changes the idea of the piano from a self-contained entity to an instrument in an ensemble, each contributing to the overall sonority. So, the pianos are, like any other group of six instruments, a chamber ensemble. Right from the beginning I had this in mind. As a result of this, I started with the idea of having things passed around the pianos. When you have six of the same instrument this just seems idiomatic and it solidifies the idea of the chamber ensemble.
The second and third things kind of came together. I chose to have the percussionist lead the audience so that, broadly speaking, it plays what he plays. The visual aspect I thought would help keep everyone together. It also helps to create a useful visual link between what’s happening on stage and what’s going on in the audience.
The way to deal with the flexibility issue came from the limitation or particular feature of the ensemble. I’m always on at my students to get them to exploit instrumental limitations as compositional possibilities; it’s a little obsession of mine. At first I thought that the plan might be to have six grand pianos on stage. This wasn’t the case. The set-up didn’t call for six grand pianos on stage but two grand pianos and four uprights. This, apart from being much more practical, adds another layer to the sound, and divides the ensemble into two. I decided to have the grands do a lot of the heavy lifting, leaving the uprights more free to share material between them. So, the grands play together as a unit and the four uprights have a more flexible interaction.
Finally the performance is taking place in The Roundhouse. I had heard tales of this legendary venue, but hadn’t seen it since it reopened. I really had to see the space before starting the write. It’s really remarkable both visually and acoustically.
In the end I decided to try to project the inherent resonance of the pianos into the space. In many ways that became the theme of the piece: the piece is in three main sections each being in a state of flux. One way or another they each become more resonant. In the end, it was a strange but fun piece to write. It took a lot of strategising and working out logistics, but that became part of the piece. Having been to the first rehearsal I’m happy to say that things are sounding good. If you’d like to see for yourself, the piece is on in the Roundhouse, London this Sunday, January 31st at 8pm and will be broadcast live online. If you do come, don’t forget to bring along some percussion.
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