Piano Bands

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Piano Circus

The piano is an instrument with a large range, the capacity for extensive counterpoint, and a chameleon tone that can easily lend itself to a wide array of sentiments and timbres. However, there is a long-standing tradition of expanding on these possibilities by multiplying the available resources by a factor of two, three, four, or more. While piano duos are the most common multiple piano instrumentation, this week’s programming will take a look at works that fall into the somewhat more exotic category of employing three or more pianos—music for piano bands.

The interest in piano band instrumentation by contemporary composers has been clear since at least the 1970s. While there are certainly earlier works for multiple pianos (for example, check out Carl Czerny’s Concert Quartet for Four Pianos, Op. 230 (1830) for a rarely heard and rather startling example of that piano-obsessed composer’s approach to quadrupling the number of available keys for passage work, runs, and filigree), the contemporary interest by composers is pronounced.

In this regard, Steve Reich’s Six Pianos (1973) was an important influence on composers and pianists alike. By distilling his musical vocabulary into the pure sound of six pianos, Reich demonstrated the possibilities inherent in the instrumentation, perhaps especially for those composers influenced by Minimalism. As a result of this work’s popularity, the piano sextet (rather than quintets or septets, for instance) has arguably become the most common configuration for piano band writing. Piano Circus, a British sextet that initially formed to perform Six Pianos, has had a tremendous impact on the repertoire for sextets as a result of their successful career and active commissioning program.

Even given the inherent impracticalities of arraying numerous pianos on a stage or in a rehearsal studio, the concept of the piano band is one that seems to have enduring resonance for composers of the modern and post-modern eras. Aside from music by Reich, throughout the week, we'll explore works for multiple pianos by Erkki Sven Tuur, Kevin Volans, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Pierre Boulez.