Loops, Ladders and Wind-Up Birds
Exploring composer Ryan Francis's box of musical toys beginning with Six Etudes for piano
Monday, April 25, 2011
On this specially curated week of Hammered! we spotlight a new album of piano music by New York-based composer Ryan Anthony Francis. The record features Bang On A Can pianist Vicky Chow, who, with Francis, joins Hammered! throughout the week with insights on this exquisite new body of piano music.
◦ Tune in at the top of the 11 am/11 pm hour Monday through Thursday for single works from the album with introductions to each piece by Francis. On Friday we'll offer a full audition of the album en total.
◦ The remainder of each day is filled with works specifically chosen by Francis that complement each of his piano pieces. Read Francis's daily programatic walk-through below, along with more detailed notes on his own music.
◦ We'll also feature additional performances at the end of each program by pianistic powerhouse Vicky Chow of brand new piano works by Andy Akiho, Evan Ziporyn, Eliot Britton and Daniel Wohl.
Among the diverse cast of characters looking over Francis's compositional shoulder are author Haruki Murakami, artist M.C. Escher and poet Wilhelm Muller. You can hear their whispers: Escher's interlocking motivic infinities in Francis's Jacob's Ladder, Murakami's polished elegance in the Wind-Up Bird Preludes, and Muller's prophetic solemnity in Consolations.
This is to say nothing of the musical personalities sitting on his other shoulder, a lineup of composers beginning with Frederic Chopin and filing through Henri Dutilleux and Richard D. James of Aphex Twin. Each of these voices are considered, adapted and synthesized by Francis into an aggressively original musical language that uses nuance, precision and stylistic-variance to create music that is at once lush, probing and inventive.
Monday: Six Etudes for Piano (2007-2008)
I’m generally more of a “write at the piano” sort of composer, especially when writing for the piano! As such I was aware of two things from the outset: (1) I wanted this set of pieces to push my creative perspective of the piano, and (2) that my tried-and-true method of pencil + staff paper + piano wasn’t going to cut it.
I ended up using the program Logic to work with MIDI maps to chart out new musical ideas. Working with MIDI maps offered an alternative to my normal physical habits at the keyboard without the thought in the back of my head “is this pianistic?” I basically just composed abstract music, unconcerned with playability, and eventually converted the MIDI files into traditional 5-staff notation using Sibelius software.
They looked like a complete mess. But they sounded compelling and different, and so I went about revising and excising passagework that was obviously unworkable for a pianist. I ended up with patterns and gestures that I definitely never would have managed with my own meager hands. More importantly, the patterns were totally pianistic, if rather unexpected in some cases.
Of course this new method of writing didn’t preclude my being influenced by other various etudes and compositions by other composers.
(1) One composer I particularly had in mind was Richard D. James (aka Aphex Twin), who had written a couple of pieces that seem to be cribbing equally from Conlon Nancarrow, John Cage and Erik Satie. The best way to describe them as a set would be “prepared player piano gymnopedies.” They often sound incredibly simple, although if you listen carefully, you realize they are impossible to perform due to huge chord spacing or playing a simple line way out of the range of where your two hands are generally situated. It gives them this “not quite right” feeling that is really amazing. Nanou 2 is an excellent example of what I’m talking about here.
For the first etude, Digital Sustain, I thought I’d work with a similarly straightforward chorale-like approach to Nanou 2, but I would overlay a series of disjointed toccata-like gestures, performed completely staccato. The pianist is catching the chords with the sostenuto pedal, which catches only specific notes, which allowed me to have both sustaining and dry attacks on the instrument at once, which is not something that is normally heard by a single pianist. It gives the impression that two people are playing at once, except that their hands would be overlapping quite awkwardly.
(2) Harlequin was my attempt to write a showstopper for Vicky. The whole piece revolves around a sequence of 32 chords in a through-composed rhythm, which then contracts by one-third the tempo each cycle. There is an overlay of material as well, sort of like Digital Sustain, but this overlay changes drastically each time through the chords cycle, so we get arabesques, glissandi, more chords, and finally the whole thing just disintegrates into fragments due to the tempo running away!
Esa Pekka Salonen’s Yta II was a big influence on this piece. That’s a relatively early piece of his, and it’s title means "surface." The constantly changing dialogue between a few elements (scales, repeated notes, clusters, trills) over 5 minutes made a big impact on me for both how simple and how effective it was.
(3) Doppelgänger was a study on a couple different ideas—first, I thought it would be interesting to re-set Wilhelm Müller’s poetry in Franz Schubert’s song of the same name, but I re-imagined without words. I also thought it would be interesting to limit the pianistic writing to something more akin to Schubert, or at least a Liszt transcription of Schubert, which meant slow rocking arpeggios, thick repeating chords and not much else. I did however add several layers of rhythmic tension between different voices throughout the piece.
(4) La Fée Verte, like Doppelgänger, is another piece with multiple points of inspiration from the great romantics: Franz Liszt, Frederic Chopin and…absinthe. As the lubricant of choice for creative types in the 19th century until the French wine industry started a propaganda campaign against it, Oscar Wilde once mused: “What is the difference between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”
My etude takes a cue from Liszt’s own Trancendental Etude Feux Follet (Wil ‘o the Wisps), and captures its ephemeral, flighty and possibly threatening presence. I also drew a lot from some of the later Pierre Boulez works, specifically his quasi-toccata Incises, although I never actually got to hear the piece until I finished my own. I had to make due with hacking through my copy of the score.
(5) Jacob’s Ladder gets its name from the toy made from blocks of wood held together that continually cascade down themselves creating a neat optical illusion.
(6) The last etude, Loop, takes a similarly “electronic” and disjointed approach to toccata-like material, but this time I ditch a second layer in favor of a slower evolving process akin to pieces like Adam’s Phrygian Gates, only much, much shorter. The opening material actually cycles three times, the first going through Escher-like mutations, the second a canon at the unison, and the third just sort of picks up on threads sown in the first two cycles.