Monday, August 23, 2010

Briggs and Mortar

I wasn't always this famous.

I know it's hard to believe, but I used to be less famous than I am now. And for a very long time.

And so there I was, minding my own business ... actually, I wasn't minding my own business. I was eating a meat dish with gravy at a dark brown table in a formal 1890's dining room and sitting at a chair made of dark wood, with action figures carved onto it. All around me were visual artists, poets, novelists, composers. And nobody asked me to pay for dinner, either before or after. I didn't get the available dessert. I never do.

I may have been sitting at a table with Ingram Marshall. Or Tamara Jenkins. Or Greg Djanikian. Or Gardner McFall. Or Marilyn Chin. Or Jeannine Herman. Or Rick Moody. All of whose names only fractured slightly when they got dropped by me right now.

A nice teenage woman wearing a white shirt called to the gathered throng, "telephone for David Rakowski!" Much later I thought the appropriate reply to that would be "that's not a very even trade!" Ah, l'esprit d'escalier, why do you torment me so? Unexpectedly, l'esprit answers: "You aren't as clever as you think, my liege."

I press on. It was early June, 2000, I was at Yaddo, and I had to make it to the very dark telephone booth in the Yaddo mansion. Very. Dark. Dark wood, bare lightbulb. It was someone at the Chicago Symphony: "Augusta Thomas has programmed four piano études of yours for our Music NOW concert next May 2. She asks that you choose four and have your publisher send them to us and bill us. Bye."


I was pretty sure Peters could find the mailing address of the Chicago Symphony.

Wait ... the Chicago Symphony has a pianist?

I had thirty existing études from which to choose, written over the previous twelve years. And Ooh! Ooh! Marilyn Nonken had recently premiered Martler, the hand-crossing one, and it looked good. Actually. It looked amazing. And there was this Dirty Rag one I thought was cool, at least in MIDI. This Fourth of Habit one seemed pretty cool when Martler and Geoffy played it. And with three very technical ones in the pot, I guess I should add a slow one; The Third, Man. Okay, that's a fine program, and a-fine with me — practically a-fine romance. Really, really hard program, though. And who knows, Martler just looks so cool, maybe I could find a way to borrow someone's camcorder and make a movie of it. If whoever they get to play it is good.

Fast forward. I finish writing Ten of a Kind at Yaddo. I have a dance party. Beff and I take a vacation in a cabin on a lake in Maine. We house shop in Boston exurbia. We buy a house! Harvard hires me to teach an intermediate composition course in the spring for too much money.

In mid-fall I got an e-mail from my homey David Smooke. It had the subject Amy Dissanayake. The body of the e-mail simply read "... is the pianist playing your études for Music NOW. You'll love her. She's great, and a good friend."

Around the turn of the year, I e-mailed my friend Stacy in Chicago to ask to stay with her for a few days in early April so I can hear the pianist play my pieces. The same day, I got an e-mail from Amy Dissanayake reading, "I'm the pianist playing your études this May. I'll be visiting my family in New Hampshire in early March and I'd like to play them for you while I'm around. Is that okay?" Is that okay? Uh, well, if she turns out to be not up to these pieces — like not a few pianists had been already — what will I be able to say ... twice? Amy also mentioned that she played jazz as well. That was an extremely good sign.

Between Yaddo and early March I wrote four more piano études.

Amy came to my house in a vehicle of unusual size at the appointed time, and we talked a bit about being native New Englanders and our respective histories. I apologized for choosing such hard pieces for her to learn and she said they were challenging, but unlike some other pieces she had been playing lately, they fit under the hands. L'esprit, don't say that fitting over the hands would be weird. Thank you. I took a picture with that weird iZone camera that Polaroid had staked its future on. We went to Brandeis, where I had reserved the concert hall and the concert grand soon to be known as "Tubby" for her to play.

She started with You Dirty Rag, and wow.

My expression mutated rapidly from game face to shit-eating grin, and after I picked my jaw up from the carpet and made a few rather minor comments, Amy played it again. During the second runthrough, Eric Chasalow happened into the hall. When Amy was done, Eric exclaimed, "Who is this? Davy, you know her? You simply must give a concert here!" Eric was the Chair, so what he said, goes.

Amy played through the other three and I was learning what I liked so much about the playing. It was accurate, it was fierce, it was incisive, but mostly it was passionate and individual. The subtle inflections and accents made me think a little of jazz, and so I asked her how much jazz she played. She said not a lot, but she loves doing it. And taking a cue from Ross Bauer many years earlier, I asked the ultimate jazzer question: can you play the changes in break of Night in Tunisia? Without hesitation, she played the passage in question. Yup, Amy was a jazzer, too.

In the car on the way home, Amy asked how many of my piano études had been recorded. I answered that Marilyn had recorded five of them on CRI, and that they had gotten tepid to good reviews (I may have mentioned that it was said they had an energy that looks to the future. L'esprit, whatever it is, don't say it), and that three more recorded by Teresa McCollough (one a duplicate) were in the works. There weren't currently any plans in the works to record more of them.

A month later I was in Chicago, staying with Stacy, and the weather was gorgeous. I always remember when weather is gorgeous. David Smooke had secured me a gig giving a colloquium at U of Chicago when I was to return for the Music NOW gig, and I may have done something at Roosevelt University for Stacy, and Amy and I did a little thing for one of David's classes at the Merit School of Music. And Stace and I took advantage of one gorgeous day to walk from her apartment along the waterfront to the Navy Pier. And we splurged on fresh-squeezed lemonade. Because, you see, it was very nice weather. And we were worth it.

Meanwhile, Amy had memorized the études. And she started to speak effusively about them. Then she dropped a bomb on me. "These pieces should be recorded. I'm going to record all of them. We have to figure out how to get that done." Wow, great idea. When I'm back in a month we'll talk about it.

Wow, all the études. No waiting. Wait, how long does it take to play all of them?

I came back to town for the gig, and showed up at U Chicago for the talk. I was a total dweeb about Martler: first I talked about it and how nobody could ever follow the score. Amy played it and nobody could follow the score. Then I invited everyone to stand in back of Amy and just watch. There was a resigned shuffling of feet, and they did so. Then a resigned shuffling of feet back to their chairs. And David Smooke asked a set of prepared questions, and I gave a set of zany answers.

Amy played marvelously at the gig itself, with, as you can see here, the sort of posture they draw in books to show you what you're supposed to look like and which no one can ever actually do. Gusty Thomas and I had a riproaring public back-and-forth before the performance. And Amy and I schemed.

Meanwhile, I never seemed to get around to making a movie of Martler. Drat.

Bridge responded favorably to the prospect of a Davytude CD, and we got the great Judy Sherman to do the recording. We decided it's 22 to 24 'tudes per CD (we're calling them 'tudes or Davytudes now, and I'm calling them Amytudes. For now), meaning I should write some more, especially to Amy's specifications. I want you to write me a stride étude. "I'm thinking of writing a 'tude with music that sounds loud that has to be played soft." You can call it "Silent But Deadly". How about an étude on my favorite chord, the sharp-9 chord?

Okay, wait. What's a stride étude, exactly? You know, stride piano. Oh. Uh huh.

The 'tudes had vanquished a few who had come before. Cancellation notices from pianists who just couldn't get them under their fingers were not uncommon. No problem with Amy, though. She spent two years playing hardly anything but my 'tudes — forty-six of them — and performing them wherever there was an opportunity. I'm not the kind of guy who says things like it was humbling, but it was humbling.

That summer I wrote her a coupla 'tudes, including the sharp-9 chord étude. She decided those two would go onto the first CD.

By December vacation, Amy was ready to air a bunch of them out in an empty concert hall at Brandeis. Finally I pulled the trigger on a camcorder purchase, and I brought it along. Amy was happy to be filmed, and she had about a dozen or fifteen new 'tudes ready to go. I was learning how to use the camera while I was at the same time hearing some of the 'tudes for the first time; and Amy's mom came along for the ride. Tubby was a bit out of tune, but again everything sounded marvelous. And I had my first collection of étude movies. My hard disk overfloweth.

Amy had put Martler aside to learn the new ones — and it was for Martler that I had gotten a camcorder in the first place. Amy had no score with her, but she agreed to indulge me with a runthrough of the first four pages, from the scores we both had at hand. Not bad for a piece she'd not looked at for seven months, no?

By the next month, Amy was ready to go public with the whole collection of 22 for the first CD — the recording sessions were to be early June. Many, many premieres happened in Chicago on January 20 at the Barnett Foundation. Amy asked me to come out to introduce the pieces, which I did. It was the first installment of The Davy 'n' Amy Show, eventually with manifestations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Maryland, and California.

It was the first time I'd been to a full-length concert with nothing but music written by me on it. I was actually a little nervous that there may not be enough variety, or enough musical heft, to carry the whole concert. But by the end, I was satisfied. I carried a concert; I was ready for the big time, whatever that was. Amy's performances were wowsers, and that certainly had just about everything to do with it. The Barnett Foundation served dinner, and during the course of my introductions I had invited any and all gathered to suggest premises for études. One lovely gentleman, at dinner, suggested I write one called Brahms, utilizing only the top and bottom octaves of the keyboard — the joke being that he got so fat that's the only notes he could reach. I have to say I spent serious time pondering that premise over the years. But I ran out of 'tudes before I could get around to it.

Gusty Thomas and Bernard Rands were at this show, and after it was over, Gusty came up to me to see the scores of the 'tudes she really liked, and to point at the passages she liked the best. That was cool.

Meanwhile, I had burned DVDs of the 'tudes we'd videoed at Brandeis. I'd show them to anyone who wouldn't run away. I had also made a VHS tape of the 'tudes to send to Judy Sherman to prepare for the recording sessions. She loved the movie of Schnozzage.

The 22 'tudes were recorded over the course of three grueling days at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. Amy was quite well-prepared, so there was no problem with time. Just as we were ready to begin the epic recording of the epic Schnozzage, Judy chimed in with, "And we are rolling." Pause. "This piano smells funny." Riotous laughter.

With the first sessions done, Amy moved on to the second batch of 'tudes for the next year. We did Amy 'n' Davy Show at the MacDowell Colony and the Kosciuszko Foundation and twice at Brandeis, and I really burned some rubber in writing the 'tudes. For those of you confused by that statement, it's a metaphor. Amy's 'tude playing was getting even better, and the new 'tudes seemed to be getting better, too.

I had the fall off on sabbatical and had a commission to write Book V of the 'tudes. Woo hoo! I started in July by seeing if I could figure out what that stride étude thing would be that Amy had asked for. I admit being ignorant about exactly what stride was, except knowing that it had something to do with jazz before the second world war. Or something. I typed "" in a browser, and presto! Such a page existed, and it listed the lions of stride. I wrote on a Post-It "James P. Johnson. Fats Waller" and brought it to Strawberries records (now defunct), who were able to provide me with two CDs of each. Beff will tell you I had one James P. Johnson CD on in the car a lot, and I especially gravitated to Jingles and Modernistic.

Wait. I'm asked to write an étude, this frilly nineteenth century concoction, on a playing style? On a style I have to consult the internet to learn about? Am I ready to go down that long slippery path wherein an étude can be about ... a style of playing?


I may have been way out of my comfort zone here — what the heck do I know about jazz stylings except for this very limited exposure? But hey — Amy knows the changes in the break of Night in Tunisia. And my ears tell me that stride is just ragtime with a right hand that swings. Okay, what the heck do I know about ragtime, then? Who cares? Put my kinda chords into the piano style, figure out a good way to notate the swing, and with any luck it won't be a Frankenstein's monster that emerges. The challenge was invigorating, and during the four days I worked on it, I was on fire — well, almost literally, since it happened to be during the worst heat wave here in decades. It was 98 degrees inside the house, and after each four bars or so, I chilled out in the air-conditioned bedroom a few minutes, repeat. When it was done, I called Martler and yelled I DIDDIT. I WROTE A STRIDE ÉTUDE. The 'tude spent some time with the title Stride Goeth Before A Fall, before I was struck by reason, and it got renamed Strident.

Martler's response: That's very nice, Davy.

Geoff Burleson, knowing I was now in the business of writing style études, immediately requested a piano bop étude. Davy's 'tude styling shop was open for business. Wait ... what's piano bop?

Stride, bop, tango, rock and roll, funk, prog rock ... turns out the slippery slope was a heck of a fun ride. I eventually arranged the first four of those for wind ensemble. Get outta town!

Over winter break, Amy aired out some of the new ones for Tubby and the video camera, and the next round of recordings went even more swimmingly. And finally, Amy was ready for her post-Davy career.

I contributed to Amy's tango project with, well of course, a tango-étude, and for quite some time most of the new 'tudes were written with Amy's playing in mind. And Amy suggested ideas for 'tudes, too, because now it was in both of our bloods. And boy did they come out fast now.

And we talked about Trader Joe's and Tower of Power a lot.

The CDs got rave reviews by lots of people who weren't British. And I found myself being referred to as the étude guy. Pretty impressive, huh?

Amy came for the first week when I was at the Atlantic Center, and she was really good working with the composers, and extremely helpful. Not to mention, fun. She was soon to record the tangos, and she practiced in my studio in the afternoons. It was great hearing all of them, and getting her to contribute to the conversations we were having about piano writing. Her ideas were terrific. And her recording of my tango — smackerific.

When Amy was ready to put up her own web page, she wanted to be able to feature some of the 'tood movies, and I was glad to oblige. She was also kind enough to wish me a belated happy birthday on her web page's blog. And returning to all the now-old étude movies on my computer, I was inspired to figure out how to create a YouTube channel and toss all the old movies up there. Immediately, people noticed. Amy even wrote for New Music Box explaining them. Cool. It turns out she's a really good writer, too.

When Amy did a concert at Boston Conservatory that included eight 'tudes, it was like old times, getting up front and doing a brief Amy 'n' Davy Show. I daresay the playing was even better. And when it was time to put Volume 3 together, Amy was busy with her now very big career and she was such a quick study that she didn't have to spend the whole year learning the new pieces. We got a bunch more videos in the can, and we didn't have to use the whole three days to record 24 études, 78 and a half minutes of them... thus saving me a half day's worth of expenses. Woo hoo!

And doesn't this one just look really cool?

More recently, we got to do our show in Baltimore and Fredonia, New York, and it was more old times. We talked about Trader Joe's and Gusty's piano tunes and how cool Eric Moe's piece was and whether the amber was superior to the pale ale...

Amy is a very, very good friend that I'm very lucky to know. Not because she single-handedly changed my career trajectory, although that's nice. And not because I'm a different composer because of her influence. It's all of those things, plus Trader Joe's, and Tower of Power, and she's great to hang with, and to write for ... and then some.

And I really want to write a piano concerto for her.

So I will.

Update: Amy informs that the tango project CD referenced above is imminent from Parma Recordings — more like weeks than months — with a cover featuring a picture by Robert Revere.