ETUDES VOLUME 1 (recorded 2001, released 2002)
Historically no more than a handful of composers have, in their music at least, evinced genuine wit, with no detectable sense of strain. The names of Haydn, Mozart, Rossini, Ravel, Stravinsky and Prokofiev come immediately to mind, as does, to those of us fortunate enough to know the man and his music, that of David Rakowski.
Rakowski’s music in general and his continually expanding collection of solo piano études in particular—at this writing 48 of what he projects to be 50 or more have been composed—are laced with examples of his agile mind and sheer delight in his ability to, as he puts it, “play games with the ways that notes get put together.”
Among the composers listed above, it seems particularly felicitous to invoke the name of Haydn when discussing the music of David Rakowski. Like Haydn, Rakowski combines a genuine seriousness of purpose and absolute command of a highly sophisticated technique with flashes of humor that is by turns wry, more than a little bent, whimsical and even, at times, outrageous. Obvious manifestations of this can include not only the punning titles of so many of Rakowski’s pieces, including those of the études on this disk, but also the performance indications in the scores themselves (“Allegro troppo”—“too fast”; “pipistrello in uscita dal inferno”—“bat out of hell”). Even the prefaces to the extant books of études, while containing very precise and utterly serious directives for the pianist, are by no means out of bounds: for example, he writes that “Touch Typing is designed as an étude for the index fingers only. Pianists who wish to use more fingers may do so at their discretion, but should also be very, very ashamed.” Similarly, Schnozzage—one of the most breathtakingly beautiful, lyrical and unfunny pieces in the entire collection—“calls for the middle part to be played with the nose. The middle part may be played instead by a second person contributing a third hand, or by an extremely well-trained pet.” Of course, taking such gems as these out of context cannot begin to do justice to the manner in which he simply, offhandedly slips them into an otherwise perfectly normal set of performance notes, giving the reader a gentle, unexpected, but ultimately delightful little jab.
On another more important plane, the attentive listener to the études recorded here can look forward to many unexpected and delightful jabs of a purely musical nature. For, make no mistake about it, just as there is infinitely more to Haydn than surface naïveté and rustic humor, there is infinitely more to Rakowski than punning titles and mere cleverness. Clearly, neither of these attributes is sufficient to sustain a work that is not substantive in its material and assured in its execution. In Rakowski as in Haydn there is the same sense of a mind that never stops, of a determination to create music that is simultaneously subtle, richly complex and teeming with ideas, yet lucid in structure and distinctive in profile.
David Rakowski’s piano études now span a period of fourteen years (and counting), from the appearance of E-Machines (#1) in 1988 to the present (2002). They also span an impressively large musical and expressive range, from the most viscerally powerful, edgy and consummately virtuosic fast tempo études (Martler, Fists of Fury) to the slower, delicately nuanced and exquisitely wrought, but no less technically and musically demanding ones (The Third, Man, Pitching from the Stretch, Northpaw, Schnozzage).
In 1991, three years after completing E-Machines, Rakowski was unaware that it and the two subsequent solo piano pieces he had recently composed—BAM! and Nocturnal—could in fact legitimately be called études until the pianist Lyn Reyna, who had premiered E-Machines and Nocturnal, pointed this out to him. Initially he was responding to pianists who liked his music and wanted to play as yet unwritten solo piano pieces by him. Since he didn’t feel drawn at the time to the idea of composing large-scale solo piano works, working in smaller forms seemed a good way to fulfill the requests of his piano playing colleagues while getting comfortable in the new medium. Gradually he came to think of writing relatively short and concentrated solo piano pieces as a kind of “compositional respite.” If he found that he had reached an impasse in a large project in which he was engaged, he would often find it useful and restorative to lay the larger work aside for the time being and compose an étude. “Writing unrelated pieces that are brief and single-minded,” he has said, “helps keep the gears moving and helps me return to the bigger piece with a fresh perspective.” As such occasions for a compositional change of pace periodically asserted themselves and more études accumulated, the idea of compiling them into “Books” of ten each seemed reasonable, as well as practical from the standpoint of publication. Further elaborating on his process he writes, “I gave myself a rule that an étude had to be written in six days or less (since E-Machines was written in six days), could not be revised, and could not have any a priori notions of how the whole piece should go.” Many of the études have been written for and bear dedications to specific performers and they are often composed in response to suggestions given by the players themselves. And a few, he adds, have emerged “because I had great titles that cried out for pieces.”
What Rakowski does not say is that the “seat-of-the-pants” approach generally is more likely to work well for composers like himself, who are not only exceptionally gifted but highly disciplined, experienced and extremely well-trained. Such attributes cannot help but manifest themselves, even when he is not fully aware of drawing upon them. This fact also slightly undermines his reference, quoted above, to writing “unrelated” pieces. A composer like Rakowski is bound to create relationships between and among these works that have been such an integral part of his recent œuvre, even when he isn’t making a conscious effort to do so; once again, as with Haydn, the mind never stops. Though it is neither necessary nor practical to perform all of the études in one fell swoop, and though there is no rigidly prescribed order in which they must be played, there are a number of gestures and ways of dealing with material that recur throughout the series. What is often striking as well as tantalizing is the manner in which these commonalities contribute to a sense that the collection as a whole might be thought of almost as one gigantic work.
A few examples may be instructive. Thus far, in every étude whose number ends in zero (except for #10), as well as in the middle section of Étude #36, Purple, there appears a version of the quasi-triplet figure known to jazz musicians as “swing eighths.” Throughout the series, there are passages as well as entire études where moving gradually from one extreme register to another (e.g. low to high, as in Martler or You’ve Got Scale) is a salient feature of the shape (one might even say trajectory) of the piece. Rakowski has pointed out that almost all of the études, despite their disparate surfaces, share formal similarities and a rather traditional sensibility when it comes to structure. “Almost all of them,” he says, “have expository music, developmental music, and a recapitulation of sorts, sometimes with a coda.” He goes on to add that tension and release, clarity of phrasing and voice leading, as well as “accumulations of events that are released suddenly” all contribute to a sense of overall unity in the cycle.
In accordance with this striving for formal clarity, Rakowski is not afraid of a clear sense of pulse or, when the material manifests a plenitude of exquisite detail that truly cries out for it, of literal repetition. There are numerous examples, as in Fourth of Habit and Twelve-Step Program, where repeat signs are thoughtfully and effectively used to aid in insuring the comprehensibility of the structure. Balancing this healthy directness and clarity is true complexity in the best sense—variety, depth and richness—as opposed to mere complication for its own sake.
Not unexpectedly, these pieces are, to put it mildly, exceedingly difficult to play, though the fact that some of today’s finest and most venturesome pianists find them eminently pianistic testifies eloquently to Rakowski’s craft and obvious concern for conceiving music that is idiomatic as well as enjoyably challenging for performers. This is all the more noteworthy given the fact that Rakowski, unlike most of the best-known writers of piano études, is not himself a pianist. His études cover most of the traditional technical and musical territory staked out by past and present masters of the genre such as Chopin, Debussy, Liszt, Scriabin, and Ligeti. This includes études on specific intervals as well as études on different types of traditional and more novel playing techniques (crossing hands, right hand alone, inside the piano, scales and arpeggios, glissandi, use of fists, nose, etc.). Even when not explicitly concerned with extreme speed and virtuoso fireworks, there are myriad requirements in all of them that must be met in the realms of phrasing, articulation, projection of important contrapuntal lines, voicing of harmonies, and good old-fashioned musicality. As in all the greatest works of this type, it ultimately is futile to speak of technical and performance issues as distinct from musical and compositional ones, or as distinct from matters of expression and communication; these études transcend such oversimplifications and false dichotomies.
Transcendental too is the pianism of Amy Dissanayake, who seems to have been born to play this music. In a musical age too often notable for its emphasis on style over substance, it is heartening as well as exceptional to find a young pianist who is willing and able to play this music with painstaking attention to its every nuance, with a formidable and seemingly limitless technique. It is, however, even more exceptional and heartening that she couples that willingness and those abilities with equal quantities of the understanding, passion, verve and commitment that this music not only demands, but richly deserves.
From ÉTUDES, BOOK II:
Étude # 20, Fourth of Habit (1998); (étude on fourths).
As he has unleashed more and more of his études upon the world, Rakowski has felt the need to find means of organizing them within the overall collection. He took a page from Debussy’s book—his first book of études actually—, deciding to base several of his own études on specific intervals (thirds, fourths, fifths, octaves, etc.). Fourth of Habit is in fact the last of six consecutive études built on intervals, as well as being the last étude in Book II, and was composed for Geoffrey Burleson, who specifically requested that his étude be based on the interval of a fourth. Burleson is not only a virtuoso and champion of new piano music, but is a formidable jazz improviser to boot; his prowess in this arena is acknowledged in the “swing eighths” rhythmic figure mentioned earlier, and this étude marks the first appearance of that figure in the collection.
Étude #15, The Third, Man (1997); étude on thirds.
As the first in the series of études on intervals, this piece is an homage to Debussy in more ways than one, recalling the ambiance of one of that master’s “greatest hits,” Claire de lune, which is almost quoted in the very last measure. The brief recapitulation in this étude coincides with a pause on a C sharp (the lowest one on the piano) in the bass’s gradual descent to the C immediately below, which is the lowest pitch in the piece.
Étude #17, Keine Kaskadenjagd mehr (1998); étude on falling thirds and fourths.
David Rakowski describes awakening in June of 1998 “on a particularly steamy and warm morning with the sound image of descending high register piano,” and concluding that “this was a template for an étude on descending thirds and fourths.” This image suggested waterfalls, which in turn brought to mind a song called “Waterfalls” by the R&B group TLC. (There is no quotation from the song in the étude.) TLC’s song contains the phrase “don’t go chasing waterfalls,” misremembered by the composer as “no more chasing waterfalls,” hence the German translation, though it is and likely will remain unclear exactly why the title is in German. Rakowski notes that “this étude strangely caught a virus—octaves first infect the texture of running descending lines about halfway into the piece, and then slowly take it over, until they get blown away by the climactic sneeze just before the return.”
Étude #16, Ice Boogie (1997); étude on octave leaps.
Written for Steven Weigt, this is chronologically the second of the interval-based études, and is, in the composer’s words, “based entirely on melodic octaves, in all sorts of rhythmic relationships to each other, within a steady stream of eighth notes.” In his inimitable manner Rakowski characterizes its climax as a “gonzo boogie woogie from hell.” The title refers to a particularly intense ice storm that struck Maine as he began composing the piece, and during which most of it was written, sometimes by candlelight.
Étude #18, Pitching from the Stretch (1998); étude on tenths.
The baseball reference that gave rise to the title of this lyrical gem resulted from the composer’s having made a field trip to Fenway Park with some friends from the MacDowell Colony to see Pedro Martinez pitch for the Red Sox. He writes: “The ‘stretch’ represents the hand position to play the tenths in the piece. It’s slow and unfolds under a right hand rhythm of all quarters, giving the melody (such as it is) to the left hand.”
Étude #19, Secondary Dominance (1998); a curiously strong étude on seconds.
The principal technical challenge for the pianist in this rhythmically bracing and delightfully off-kilter étude, described by the composer as “painfully difficult,” is its unpredictability, i. e. the non-patterned nature of the combinations of figures derived from alternating or repeated notes a second apart. On the plus side, though, Rakowski particularly enjoys the fact that the ending gesture is a non sequitur, which, he says, “seemed just right.”
Étude #12, Northpaw (1996); right-hand étude.
It has become more traditional over the years to write pieces for the left hand alone rather than for the right. Scriabin wrote an étude for the left hand, and Brahms made a transcription for left hand alone of the famous Chaconne from Bach’s D minor Partita for solo violin. It has generally been assumed that most pianists, particularly right-handed ones, could stand to develop greater independence of the left hand. In this case, however, the impetus was a call from Lyn Reyna requesting a right-hand piece as a gift to her friend Barbara Barclay, who had fallen off a ladder, injuring her left hand. A hauntingly beautiful and slowly unfolding piece, it is, as its composer writes, “based around F-sharp and A, with a slow descent to the lowest A on the piano over a melody that stays close to the register where it begins.”
Étude #11, Touch Typing (1996); étude for index fingers only.
Composed at the American Academy in Rome in the late spring, the idea for this étude came when Rakowski found himself sitting at a laptop computer attempting to help another Fellow with his e-mail program. Rakowski noticed that this man typed with only his index fingers, but had taught himself to do so extremely rapidly. According to the composer, “the ‘theme’ of the piece is ‘asdfgh’ (where the left hand rests to touch-type on a ‘qwerty’ typewriter keyboard), or A-A-flat,D,F,G,B.” This figure pervades the entire work, which is built on a fast-slow-fast formal scheme.
From ÉTUDES, BOOK IV:
Étude #36, Purple (2001); étude on a chord.
Amy Dissanayake is a part-time jazz pianist, and when David Rakowski asked her for ideas for piano études he might compose especially for her, she suggested an étude on her favorite chord: the right hand position of a sharp-9 chord, for instance E-B-flat-E-flat, reading up. It turns out that not only is this harmony commonly used in jazz as well as in much of Rakowski’s music, it is the ur-chord of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze, hence the title. In the middle section of the piece the composer quotes from Fourth of Habit, one of the first Rakowski études that Ms. Dissanayake played.
From ÉTUDES, BOOK II:
Étude #13a, Plucking A (1996/2002), inside-the-piano étude.
Written for Marilyn Nonken, a great interpreter of Rakowski études in her own right, this piece exploits the problems, logistical as well as musical, of playing inside the piano. The composer discovered that it works perfectly well on many smaller pianos, but not on a Steinway D, because of the different locations and configurations of crossbars, etc. In January 2002, knowing that Amy Dissanayake would be using a Steinway D for this recording, Rakowski created an alternative version, Étude #13a, that would take into account these differences. In addition to occasional notes played normally on the keys, it exploits, in its eerily beautiful way, harmonics, plucked strings and stopped (or muted) tones, in which one hand damps the strings near the pins while the other strikes the keys.
Étude #14, Martler (1997); crossing hands étude.
Martler’s title is a conflation of the first and last names of the English pianist and composer Martin Butler, one of Rakowski’s good friends. In the process of writing a piece based on the opening of Butler’s Jazz Machines, Rakowski ultimately realized that the piece he was writing was really about hand crossings. These become increasingly more and more harrowing until just before the recapitulation, when the left hand plays in the middle register and the right crosses over to the bottom of the piano. The visual effect of this étude in performance is in many ways no less stunning than the powerful aural impression it makes.
From ÉTUDES, BOOK III:
Étude #21, Twelve-Step Program (1999); étude on chromatic scales and wedges.
This piece is an homage to Earl Kim, a composer who had recently passed away as Rakowski had resolved to begin Book III. He recounts, “I remember in particular one very striking vocal chromatic ‘wedge’ from an extended vocal cadenza in Kim’s Exercises en Route and wondered if I could write a whole piece based around such chromatic wedges.” (A chromatic wedge is a series of intervals that contract and expand symmetrically by half steps.) Beginning with jerky rhythmic projections of the wedge, it gradually smooths out into running sixteenth notes and slower, more extended versions of the wedge. The ending manages to evaporate just before a recapitulation might have occurred.
Étude #29, Roll Your Own (2000); étude on rolled chords.
Based on one of several suggested ideas for études from composer Jason Eckardt, to whom Roll Your Own is dedicated, Eckardt’s proposed title alone rendered it irresistible. The crux of this piece is an extremely slow moving, relentless sequence of rolled chords in half notes that accompany a melody confined to the middle register. The rolled chords gradually fan out, getting progressively wider until the rolled chord becomes all eight C’s on the piano keyboard. The texture more quickly contracts in register to the opening rolled chords, with which the étude concludes.
Étude #23, You Dirty Rag (1999); étude on melody in the left thumb.
Rakowski’s original idea was for intricate left-hand figures to act as a background to a melody that would mostly be stated in the left thumb. In his words, he “copped an upbeat beginning figure from Hayes Biggs’s Tagrango to get me going, and this developed, sort of beyond my control, into ragtime-like figures. As such, it also developed into an étude in which the speed of the two hands is quite different: slow ragtime in the left hand and extremely fast, double-time ragtime figures in the right, zipping over the entire range of the piano.” As the composer from whom the upbeat figure was cribbed, I am more than pleased to have helped push things beyond his control.
Étude #24, Horned In (1999); étude on horn fifths.
“Horn fifths” are familiar to most listeners to classical music, even if they don’t recognize the term, which refers to a specific type of figure that sounds like a hunting call played by a pair of horns. The title is a pun on the name of David Horne, for whom this étude was written. Only horn fifths are used, eventually at least once at every possible transposition, creating a very attractive sort of polytonal blur. The final pages stretch out a horn fifth on G for almost five bars in the bass, against which the upper parts articulate other horn fifths at different pitch levels and at faster rates of speed. The effect is one of distant, gauzy, tolling bells, a kind of soft-focus tintinnabulation, ending with the original pitch level of the horn figure, “as if,” the composer writes, “nothing had happened.”
Étude #30, A Gliss is Just a Gliss (2000); étude on glissandi.
Yet another vernacular-influenced étude replete with “swing eighths,” Rakowski describes this piece as “a raucous sort of atonal honky-tonk that shifts from register to register in the coarsest and crassest way possible, with glissandi.” The opening marking given to the pianist is, aptly enough, “Deranged,” and the glissandi keep coming, though the piece, somewhat surprisingly, ends very quietly and not at all raucously.
Étude #26, Once Bitten (2000); étude on mordents.
Derived from the Italian word meaning “to bite,” the term “mordent” refers to a very short and snappy trill figure, consisting of a main note that alternates with the note below. The most famous example in music history may well be the opening of J. S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, and in fact, Rakowski begins this étude with precisely those same pitches. A favorite of the composer’s it involves some rather intricate finger-twisting in the inner voices of the harmonies as the mordent figure moves around.
Étude #27, Halftone (2000); Left-hand/Right-hand/Black-key/White-key étude.
This piece combines separate white-note and black-note musics that can be played together as well as individually. Avoiding the clichés that so often arise from such restricted pitch material was initially daunting. His solution, as in so many other cases in the cycle of études, was registral. “ There is white-note music that starts high and fast that descends and gets slower,” he writes, “and black-note music that starts low and slow and gets higher and faster. I thought the most dramatic part of the piece would be when both musics are played together and they cross each other in register.” The unique example of “open form” in the entire collection, on this recording the white-note music is heard first, followed by the black-note music, and then both simultaneously.
From ÉTUDES, BOOK IV:
Étude #35, Luceole (2001); étude on rising seconds and thirds.
Luceole is the first étude Rakowski composed specifically for Amy Dissanayake. He recalled thinking of Keine Kaskadenjagd mehr, but this time with smaller intervals going up instead of down, and in jerky rhythms. At first he likened these figures to little puffs of smoke. Setting it aside for three months, he returned to it at the MacDowell Colony. While there, he passed a field full of fireflies one evening when walking to his studio, and realized that perhaps he “wasn’t writing musical puffs of smoke, but musical fireflies.” This new image led him to the ending, with its high, shimmering tremolos, and to his title, which is the Italian word for fireflies.
From ÉTUDES, BOOK III:
Étude #28, You’ve Got Scale (2000); étude on scales and arpeggios.
Teresa McCollough, who has recorded several of the études, including BAM!, which she particularly enjoyed performing, suggested the idea of this piece to Rakowski. Similarly to BAM!, the piece begins with relentless fast running sixteenth notes that ascend gradually from the bottom register. “Plain old running scales and arpeggios slowly mutate into chords that build up out of the perpetual motion,” writes Rakowski, “after which the piece goes back to the bottom register where it belongs.”
Étude #22, Schnozzage (1999); étude for the nose (or third hand).
There are a number of (probably) apocryphal stories involving notes played on a keyboard instrument with the nose. Rakowski heard the version in which Mozart shows Haydn a piano piece he has composed which culminates in five octaves worth of C’s which must be played simultaneously. When Haydn protests that this is physically impossible, Mozart demonstrates by playing the outer octaves with his hands while leaning down to play the middle one with his nose. This piece alternates “solo” passages for the nose with “tutti” passages for the hands alone, and is arguably one of the most gorgeous of the études.
Étude #25 Fists of Fury (1999); étude for fists.
A virtuoso tour-de-force for Marilyn Nonken, the idea for this piece grew out of an extremely demanding and magnificently played solo concert she had undertaken at New York City’s Miller Theater at Columbia University, and on which she performed the first two Rakowski études. The concert had been advertised under the rather absurd title “Fists of Fury,” a moniker rather more redolent of martial arts à la Bruce Lee than of exciting and formidable new piano music. Rakowski decided to write Marilyn a piece with that title that actually does call for fists about a quarter of the time. Fast, loud and furious, it quotes from BAM!, as well as from the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, a piece the composer had, as a trombonist, played years before.
Notes by Hayes Biggs, 2002.
ETUDES VOLUME 2 (recorded 2002, released 2004)
In January of 1988, on a lark, David Rakowski boarded a plane for Phoenix, where he rented a small apartment in order to concentrate on writing a piece. Being in a warm climate in winter for the first time proved an enjoyable and stimulating experience, and Rakowski found himself completing his project a week sooner than expected. He decided to write “a silly piece, probably worthless,” for his friend, the English composer Martin Butler, who had been pestering him for a solo piano work for some time. Uncertain of his ability to write effectively for the piano, what Rakowski most assuredly did not want to write was what he felt he saw too many of in those days: “big, Romantic, slurpy, heavy, loud, overdramatic and self-important pieces.” He based his piece on Butler’s amazing ability to play rapid repeated notes with the fingers of only one hand, a feat that had become something of a running joke between them over the years. In six days, Rakowski had composed what he would come to call E-Machines, which was premiered not by Butler but by the pianist Lyn Reyna, who later also played BAM!, the second étude, and requested and premiered Étude # 3, Nocturnal. To his surprise, when he first heard her perform E-Machines, which he had feared was unplayable, he actually found that it in fact sounded very good. Far from unplayable, it has actually turned out to be his most performed work. It was Ms. Reyna who first observed that these three pieces—
E-Machines, BAM! and Nocturnal—could be classified as études. Deep down, he knew she was right, but he also thought he knew that he would not return to the genre any time soon. “Now with a nice suite of pieces that worked together,” he observed, “I was pretty much sure I was done with études.”
He was not.
At last tally, David Rakowski has completed six books of ten études each and two from a projected seventh book, comprising a total of sixty-two. They run the gamut from the fastest tempi to the slowest, from études based on specific intervals or chords to those based on specific playing techniques, including but not limited to an étude for the inside of the piano (#13, Plucking A, from Book II) and one that requires the pianist to play certain notes with the nose (#22, Schnozzage, Book III). To these possibilities have been added the notion of études built on specific styles, such as stride piano (#40, Strident, Book IV) and bop (#41, Bop It, Book V), as well as tango and rock and roll in Book VI.
As recounted in the notes to the previous CD release (Bridge 9121) of Books II and III as well as #35, Luceole, and #36, Purple, from Book IV, Rakowski came to view the writing of études as a kind of compositional respite; when he found himself at an impasse while writing a large-scale “serious” piece, he could take a break from it and compose an étude. (Book V is the one exception to the idea of études as respites from larger pieces, having been written in sequence, in response to a commission from the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard.) In addition to being able to return to the larger project refreshed, he began to see that the process of writing these tightly focused and single minded shorter pieces was also a means of refreshing his technique in a more general way. The rules he set for himself—that an étude must be written from “left to right,” with no a priori notions of how the piece should go, that he could not take more than six days to compose one, and that once composed, it could not be revised—helped to foster a greater spontaneity to counterbalance the compositional rigor and discipline he had cultivated during his years of study. It also encouraged a much more fluent, “long-breathed” approach to phrasing as well as an increased sensitivity to the rate of harmonic change, and taught him how to write genuinely fast music. Perhaps most liberating of all, composing the études has fused his genuine wit and quirky (to say the least) sense of humor with his formidable skill and unwavering seriousness of purpose as an artist, allowing him, as he says, to “have more joy in the simple act of invention.”
Confronting the panoply of emotional, technical, musical and expressive demands made by these études requires a pianist of uncommon gifts, sensitivity and dedication, and Rakowski, who has been most fortunate in persuading some of today’s finest pianists to perform the études, has found in Amy Dissanayake an artist whose fearlessness, self-assurance, seemingly illimitable technical prowess, musicality and sheer relish in meeting every challenge make her an ideal advocate for these works, which collectively constitute one of the most significant new contributions to the contemporary piano repertory.
The present compilation includes Book I in its entirety, most of Book IV (minus the two previously released études mentioned above), and a little over half of Book V.
From ÉTUDES, Books I, IV and V:
Book IV: Étude #40, Strident (2002); stride piano étude
Amy Dissanayake begins her latest recorded traversal of Rakowski études with one whose composition she instigated. Strident is particularly significant by virtue of marking the first time in the collection that an étude has taken a musical style, as opposed to a playing technique or an interval, as its point of departure, and Rakowski was initially somewhat wary of taking that plunge. To prepare, he steeped himself in the œuvres of two of the greatest masters of the style, James P. Johnson and “Fats” Waller. A tune of Johnson’s from the 1920s called Jingles was perhaps the most direct influence on Strident. Rakowski came to understand stride as being “like ragtime (oompah in the left hand, with fast stuff in the right hand), except that it swings, and the bass line is a little more melodic than in ragtime.” Fittingly, the basic shape of the étude is that of a traditional march or rag, with an introduction, two repeated strains, a trio that is also repeated, and an elaborate coda. As in other Rakowski études, the repeats afford welcome opportunities for the listener to more fully absorb and savor the manifold delights of following the composer’s musical train—or roller coaster—of thought. As in Twelve-Step Program, (#21, Book II) and the later Boogie Ninths (#32, Book IV) the repeats are varied dynamically (if the first time is loud, the second is soft and vice versa) for maximum effect.
Rakowski’s études, as well as much of his other music, as often as not have a definite pitch center or centers, and sometimes, as in Strident, certain traditional functionally tonal relationships are alluded to without being acted upon, for example the apparent dominant seventh chord that immediately precedes the trio, as well as the pseudo V-I final cadence in B-flat.
Étude #37, Taking the Fifths (2002); étude on perfect fifths
Étude #39, Sixth Appeal (2002); étude on sixths
The next two works return to the subcategory of études built on a single type of interval, and present the greatest possible gestural and affective contrast with the rollicking virtuosity of Strident. Additionally, Taking the Fifths and Sixth Appeal further explore Rakowski’s ability to refresh, enrich and refine his essentially non-tonal language by seamlessly integrating with it harmonic and melodic gestures that are readily found in tonal music. During the past several decades it was common for composers of Rakowski’s age and older to consciously eschew such sonorities as being somehow too cliched, as though the chasm between tonality and so-called atonality were too wide to be bridged, with an implied—or occasionally even directly stated—attitude of “never the twain shall meet.” Similarly, a strong, clear sense of pulse was often (inexplicably) viewed with suspicion as being somehow too obvious or square, though, like most other things in music, in the hands of a skilled composer it certainly need not be. This listener connects Rakowski’s interest in the expansion of his tonal resources with a strong early influence of Alban Berg, whose works often give the impression of being poised perfectly between the tonal and non-tonal realms; this is of course because tonality and atonality are not two separate worlds with distinct and unbreachable boundaries but rather a continuum along which there can be many subtle points of contact. Rakowski’s profound understanding of this legacy of Berg, together with his equal embrace of Stravinsky’s rhythmic dynamism and a concomitant insistence that a perceivable beat can be a valuable compositional resource, one to which composers of any stylistic persuasion can legitimately lay claim, imparts to Rakowski’s music richness and variety as well as structural clarity and directness of communication.
Perfect fifths of course have strong tonal associations, but in Taking the Fifths Rakowski employs them in his own language in a completely natural, unselfconscious and personal manner. He traces the inspiration for his opening neighbor note motive, stated in parallel perfect fifths, to the first sung music in Stravinsky’s Renard. Cast as a straightforward tripartite structure, with the outer sections faster in tempo than the middle one, the first inversion triad of D major acts as a referential harmony (though not a traditionally functional one) that opens and closes the first part, and returns at the beginning of the final part. Fifths are taken to the next level in the beautiful central section, stacked atop one another to form a stunningly varied array of lush six-voiced block harmonies by means of exquisite voice leading and spacing.
Sixth Appeal, an homage to the wistful, autumnal melancholy of Brahms’ late piano music, takes its cue from an intervallic and textural usage especially beloved of that master, parallel sixths. The piece begins by suggesting, without actually being in, the key of B minor, particularly by virtue of its insistence on a figure consisting of a major sixth oscillation between C-sharp and A-sharp. These two notes, together exerting a strong pull toward B, are used obsessively in nearly every octave of the piano, accompanied by variants of the opening bars. Indeed, register plays a significant role in this piece, as in a great many of the other études: the piece begins in the low middle part of the keyboard (a typically Brahmsian center of operations) and gradually works its way up to the very top of the range, before moving down to the depths of the bass of the piano. The appearance of the motive (now spelled as D-flat and B-flat) in the piano’s lowest register coincides with the recapitulation of the opening material, and gives the temporary impression of the tonal center’s having moved from B to B-flat. The fluid nature of the featured intervals seems to have influenced Rakowski’s metric notation in this piece—continually shifting bar lengths without actual time signatures.
Book I: Étude #1, E-Machines (1988); repeated note étude
This celebration of Martin Butler’s extraordinary capacity to rapidly execute repeated notes with one hand has a symmetrical formal structure: A-B-C-B-A. The letters also refer to three distinct types of hexachords (collections of six notes) that alternate as principal pitch material for each section. Additionally, the symmetry is played out in terms of register, with the A sections focusing on the high register, the B sections on the low, and C encompassing all of the registers. E-Machines is the first instance of several in the entire étude collection of a climactic moment occurring as an explosion of multiple octaves of the same note. In this case that note is E-natural, culminating in an outrageous and hilarious quote from, of all things, Beethoven’s Für Elise, the initial notes of which are conveniently contained within hexachord A. Hexachord C is the source of an earlier, more fleeting (but no less funny) Beethoven reference, from the opening of the Sixth Symphony. Caveat auditor: if you blink (or whatever the aural equivalent of blinking is), you’ll miss it.
Book IV: Étude #33, Sliding Scales (2001); gonzo étude on scales
The term “gonzo,” often used in a journalistic context to refer to a particularly exaggerated or extreme style, describes well the almost comically obsessive quality of this étude—scales gone wild, as it were. They are unfolded in multifarious ways and at varying rates of speed, beginning with the first six notes of a diatonic (Phrygian) scale on E, which continues, via intrusions of accidentals, to morph into various other scales over the next several bars. The slower-moving melody in the right hand begins a gradual scalar ascent of its own, interrupted by repeated notes and groups of notes. This is followed by an overall descent of the various voices and an ascent to an even higher point. At one point as many as four distinct contrapuntal strands of scales moving in various directions and durations are heard at once. Sometimes it seems that the scales are chasing each other—or perhaps chasing their own tails. A curious and intriguing reminiscence of E-Machines occurs when the various lines converge on a unison E-natural, which splits apart into multi-octave E’s spanning virtually the entire keyboard. These broken octaves, divided between the hands, begin unfolding scales of their own in opposite directions. Among many challenges for the performer are preserving the independence of the individual voices while maintaining the effortless flow implied by the unequal bars, once again, as in Sixth Appeal, notated without meter signatures.
Book I: Étude #3, Nocturnal (1991); étude on slow repeated notes
Written at the request of Lyn Reyna, who was planning a concert tour and sought a contrasting third piece to form a group with E-Machines and BAM!, this is the first of the études to explore a lyrical style in a slow tempo. The clear link between Nocturnal and E-Machines is not merely the fact that both center on F-sharp, but, more important, that the same sequence of repeated pitches employed in E-Machines is recycled at a much more deliberate pace and in a vastly different musical and expressive context. These repetitions, unlike those of the first étude, are dreamy, even hypnotic in character, and much less rhythmically regular. In keeping with the languorous mood, as well as the composer’s propensity for quotation, the central section contains an embedded quote from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
Étude #6, Mano à mano (1995); étude on alternating hands
Lisa Moore, now the pianist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, often performed on student composers’ concerts at Columbia University when Rakowski taught there. Mano à mano focuses on a detail he remembered from a performance she gave of Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 6: a tremolo chord executed by the alternation of the hands. Rakowski marveled at the sheer speed and altitude of her hands in this passage, which he described as “wild” in appearance, and decided that he would base the étude she had requested from him on this particular technique, which is applied to single notes as well as to dyads and chords at an extremely fast tempo, lending an almost demonic quality to the music. The notes of the actual Davidovsky chord are occasionally employed as a melody. In the fourth measure of the piece, there is a sudden sforzando intrusion of the notes A-sharp and C-sharp in the right hand and the lowest D on the keyboard in the left, a gesture that keeps returning throughout the piece. Also recurring throughout is a melody based on the letters of Lisa Moore’s name, rendered into musical notation by mapping them onto the chromatic scale. This is a favorite device of Rakowski’s, and occurs in several of the études as well as in other pieces.
Étude #10, Corrente (1996); étude on left hand running notes
The composer attributes the origin of Corrente (Italian for “running”) to a dream he had while in residence at the American Academy in Rome. He heard very beautiful music in this dream, but as often happens with music heard by composers in dreams, all that he could recall about it upon awakening was the fact that it involved running figures that continually descend to the lowest register of the piano. Corrente clearly centers on A, the first and last note of the melody that is accompanied by the running notes, as well as a constantly recurring pitch throughout. In Italian, the word “corrente” can refer to a 16th or 17th century dance, most often in a fast triple meter; it can also refer to electrical current, and is often used in weather reports in talking about the jet stream. All of these possible meanings ran through the composer’s mind as he was writing.
Étude #8, Close Enough for Jazz (1995); ostinato étude
The word “jazz” in the title alludes to the fact that the music of the piece’s dedicatee, composer and pianist Sandra Sprecher, reminded Rakowski of free jazz of the 1950s, and he tried to capture that feeling by using harmonies that she might have chosen in her own work. The trick to writing an effective ostinato is to come up with an idea that not only has a distinctive, recognizable shape, but that is also just complex enough to bear plenty of repetition. The immediately engaging and rather playful ostinato in this piece, mostly contained within a septuple meter, walks this tightrope with aplomb. It actually does change imperceptibly at times in terms of actual pitches, but by and large the intervals and rhythms remain constant, providing a backdrop for the soloistic fancies of the melodic line, even as the bass register of the piano begins to intrude, the texture grows ever more intricate, and the pianist’s path becomes more technically treacherous. This is one of the most beautifully concise and satisfying of all the études.
Étude #9, ´ Strident (ÈPollici e mignoli, or, The Virus That Ate New York (1995); étude for thumbs and pinkies only
Similarly to the later Touch Typing (#11, Book II) this étude, also composed with Sandra Sprecher in mind, places limits on the specific digits to be employed in its execution, though the composer in his performance instructions reluctantly grants permission to those who would use additional fingers. The Italian words in the title can literally be translated as “thumbs and pinkies.” (This phrase can also mean “big toes and little toes,” though construing that as an alternative mode of performance is emphatically not to be recommended.) The “virus” that ultimately takes over is a rhythmic one, a rapid triplet thirty-second note figure that appears innocuously enough at first but quickly spreads like wildfire. The original staccato-dominated texture makes a couple of valiant but ultimately vain attempts to resurface, and by the end has been completely engulfed.
Book IV: Étude #34, Chorale Fantasy (2002); étude on an embedded melody
Rakowski’s title is a play on that of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, but the term “chorale” here really can be said to refer to the melody, initially heard unaccompanied, that subsequently migrates among the various voices of the counterpoint and functions as a kind of floating cantus firmus, somewhat similar to the way an actual chorale tune might be used in a Baroque instrumental prelude or opening choral movement of a cantata, emerging from the general texture. The supreme technical and musical challenge of this delicately nuanced music is to bring to the fore, within an unvarying pianissimo dynamic, the notes of that melody and only those notes, no matter in which polyphonic strand they may occur at any given instant, without disturbing the background texture and inadvertently emphasizing other nearby pitches. To make the desired end result visually clear to the pianist, the composer uses normally sized noteheads for the migrating principal melodic voice and smaller ones for the subsidiary material.
Étude #31, Usurpation (2000); étude on a persistent slow trill
Martin Boykan, one of Rakowski’s colleagues at Brandeis and a highly distinguished composer in his own right, had composed a set of five short piano pieces entitled Usurpations, each based on small units—a motive or figure, or even simply a chord— culled from pieces by esteemed colleagues. Rakowski was one of the five so honored, and in response to a request for a work for a 70th birthday festschrift for Boykan in Perspectives of New Music, decided to, as he put it, “return the usurpation.” Two excerpts from Boykan’s Piano Sonata No. 2, one stated at the very outset and another near the end, provide the material of the étude. Slow trills occur frequently in Boykan’s music, and these excerpts provided a perfect opportunity for a study based on this musical fingerprint. The trill on which this piece is based, between D and the C-sharp below, allows a quotation in the final bars of the étude from the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, a favorite of both Boykan and Rakowski.
Book V: Étude #47, Fra Diabolis (2002); étude on tritones
Like major sevenths and minor ninths, the tritone has taken on the status of a modernist cliche, but it has throughout the history of music played a significant though at times sinister role. It is unique among intervals in being self-inverting. In other words, whether spelled harmonically as an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth, it retains the same number of half steps (six), whereas, for example, the perfect fifth, a consonance, contains seven and its dissonant inversion, the perfect fourth, five. The harmonic ambiguity of the tritone probably accounts at least in part for the suspicion with which medieval theorists viewed it and the satanic qualities they imputed to it. The first tritone to be recognized, before the widespread use of sharps and flats, was the one spanning B-natural and F-natural. Rakowski uses this “ur-tritone” as an interruption, in the extremes of the keyboard, to articulate the form at several points, and “B-F” is the dual pitch center of the piece. At the very end this same tritone finally “resolves” outward by a half step, one of two possible traditional moves for this interval. Rakowski also gets the greatest possible mileage out of his initial series of bare tritones in the middle section of the piece by embedding them within more complex harmonies containing other intervals.
Book I: Étude #4, Trillage (1993); trill étude
Similarly to the later Usurpation, Trillage quotes from the work of esteemed colleagues, in this case George Edwards of Columbia University, and Ross Bauer of the University of California at Davis. (The nod to Bauer, a fragment from his Concertino, is brief and occurs early in the étude, in its fifth and sixth bars.) Also as in Usurpation, the impetus for Trillage is, not surprisingly, trills. Rakowski had heard and admired Edwards’ Piano Concerto, which had recently been premiered by the dedicatee of Trillage, Alan Feinberg. Particularly impressive to Rakowski was a written-out cadenza featuring sustained notes in the outer voices and trills in the inner parts. He therefore decided to fulfill Feinberg’s request for a new étude with a formal approach unique to his études thus far: Trillage is a short set of variations with a decidedly rhapsodic bent, based on the Edwards passage, which appears in its original form at the outset of the sixth variation. A recapitulatory coda concludes the piece. Rakowski conceives the basic melodic gesture of Trillage in terms of lines whose content gradually decreases to two notes, which subsequently accelerate into a trill. Rakowski’s connection to Berg seems particularly conspicuous in this piece, with its tension between the structural rigor of variation technique and the essential Romanticism of the musical language.
Étude #5, Figure Eight (1994); octave étude
Aptly characterized by the composer as mostly being “a very fast one- or two-part invention,” this piece relentlessly explores as many octave textures as possible during its brief but eventful time span and gives the pianist a substantial workout to boot. The textures range from the simplest (the melody in the right hand at the beginning, doubled an octave lower in the left) to the most technically daunting—each hand in octaves, with many sizeable leaps. One of the more interesting variants is one in which the right hand plays a two-voiced texture, with each voice doubled an octave lower in the left hand. The composer especially enjoys the passages in which both hands begin in the middle of the keyboard, each playing widely ranging single note melodies in rhythmic unison that move in opposite directions toward the extremes of the keyboard, but with all simultaneous intervals being single or multiple octaves.
Book IV: Étude #38, Silent But Deadly (2002); pianissimo étude
Rakowski (very quietly) throws down the gauntlet in this étude—which might just as easily have been called Walking on Eggs—by challenging the pianist to play what would normally be very loud (or at least extremely dynamically varied) and rhythmically active music at a uniformly and extremely soft level. Suffice it to say that the dramatic tension generated by trying to keep a lid on the volume in the midst of such technical and textural complexity is far greater and more compelling than it would be had the piece been allowed to devolve into a more conventional atonal piano piece with constant dynamic fluctuations. This étude is dedicated to the pianist’s husband, Shehan B. Dissanayake.
Book I: Étude #7, Les Arbres embués (1995); étude on melody and thick chords
Martin Butler expressed an interest in having Rakowski compose an étude for him that would be reminiscent of Debussy, specifying “a simple melody over thick chords.” The title, literally translated, means “steaming trees.” Rakowski was at the MacDowell Colony, and there, one very sunny morning, after an intense overnight rainstorm, he could literally see steam coming off the wet trees because of the sun’s heat. The melody is derived from the letters of Martin Butler’s name. Despite its slow tempo and seemingly placid surface, this is one of the most dauntingly difficult to play of all the études, albeit also one of the most truly exquisite to listen to. The performer’s challenge comes by way of the notation, which, while presenting initial obstacles, is at the same time the most logical possible representation of the musical idea. The crux of the problem is that often the melody is doubled two octaves lower and notated entirely in the upper staff, while in the lower staff the accompanying chords—often in as many as five voices—contain notes that are actually higher than those in the upper staff. What this overlapping effectively means is that both hands are simultaneously occupied with both the melody and the accompanying texture, instead of a more traditional division of labor in which one hand plays the tune while the other accompanies. As in the case of so many of the other études, however, given the right pianist who truly grasps the long line of the piece, the beauty and subtlety of the music emerges with utter clarity.
Book IV: Étude #32, Boogie Ninths (2000); étude on ninths
Quite apart from its undeniable visceral power and excitement, this piece also fascinates and compels because its harmonic language, in part owing to the nature of the intervals on which it is based, stands subtly apart from that of some of the other fast-tempo études as being less readily connected to tonal sonorities. Boogie Ninths, while still bearing many of the hallmarks of Rakowski’s style, demonstrates in its unique manner the flexibility of his idiom and the harmonic shadings of which it is capable. While the composer designates the three indicated repeats as optional, they truly are helpful to the listener in grasping a barrage of potent, sharply profiled ideas. (In this recording all repeats are observed.) Particularly striking is a declamatory passage in octaves roughly halfway through the étude, played the second time through with contrasting dynamics, leading to a climax in which a fearsomely tricky octave-doubled bass line featuring many jumps of a ninth is pitted against delectably crunchy, constantly mutating four-note chords in the right hand that span a ninth.
Book I: Étude #2, BAM! (1991); étude on swirls of notes
BAM! begins where E-Machines leaves off—quite literally. The first notes, D-flat and B-flat are the same ones, in the same register, that ended the first étude. This work was composed at the request of Karen Harvey as a companion piece for E-Machines, and in many respects behaves in a complementary fashion. Like E-Machines, BAM! has a symmetrical structure that is articulated by means of register and makes similar use of hexachords. It also quotes E-Machines, as well as (fleetingly) Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. The first two études mirror each other up to a point, at least in terms of the registral scheme. Whereas E-Machines begins in a high register and works its way gradually downward, BAM! commences by taking the opposite course. As in Mano à mano, the letters of Karen Harvey’s first name are mapped onto the chromatic scale to generate melodic material. The title derives from a marking Ms. Harvey placed above a sforzando chord in the piano part of Rakowski’s Violin Concerto, which she played at Tanglewood.
Book V: Étude #46, Durchrauscht die Luft (2002); étude on sevenths
Besides being Rakowski’s only complete book of études whose pieces were composed in sequence, Book V also bears the distinction of completing the series of études built on intervals. As mentioned earlier, the seventh, particularly the major seventh, has become emblematic of the grittiest and most difficult tendencies of musical modernism. Rakowski’s quest for a kinder, gentler seventh led him to the graceful image of a bird in flight, which in turn led him to remember a graceful rhythmic figure from the piano part of the thirteenth of Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes, the vocal part of which begins with the words “Vögelein, durchrauscht die Luft” (“Little bird darting through the air”). In keeping with that conceit, Rakowski takes a delicate, restrained approach, with the dynamic never rising above mezzo forte, and the piece beginning and concluding in the highest register of the instrument.
Étude #41, Bop It (2002); bop étude
Following quickly on the heels of Strident, Bop It is the second étude to be based on a vernacular style, and its edgy, mercurial temperament and manic energy capture the essence of the idiom. Piano bop, exemplified by such figures as Bud Powell, can be characterized as comprising sharp, stabbing chords in the left hand supporting extremely rapid, virtuosic solo improvisations in the right. Requested by Geoffrey Burleson, who is also the dedicatee of Fourth of Habit (#20, Book II), Bop It divides into two main sections, each one commencing with what is traditionally referred to as a “head,” essentially a setting forth of the basic harmonic progression in block chords, or a kind of “syncopated chorale,” as Rakowski describes it, followed by the soloistic flights of the right hand above that progression. For the sake of harmonic variety, the composer begins the second part of the piece with a new set of chord changes, having evidently concluded that two heads are better than one.
Étude #43, Wiggle Room (2002); étude on fast notes moving in parallel
Suggested by Ms. Dissanayake, this étude draws its inspiration, as well as its basic figuration, from the C minor Prelude of Book I of J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. The economy of this music is particularly noteworthy, its interest maintained by means of subtly shifting patterns within a steady stream of sixteenth notes in an unvarying tempo. In further homage to Bach (and to the musicality and imagination of the executant), this piece is written without dynamics or articulations, those as well as the pedaling being left to the discretion of the pianist.
Étude #48, What Half-Diminishes One (Half-Diminishes All) (2002); chorale-étude on half-diminished seventh chords
“The late nineteenth century’s favorite chord,” according to Rakowski, is the sole basis, apart from “a few passing tones, suspensions and arpeggiations,” for this poignantly understated piano chorale. Yet again, Martin Butler has had a hand in the genesis of a Rakowski étude. Butler had composed a piano chorale, built entirely on major seventh chords in all possible inversions, which he had played over the telephone to Rakowski, who decided he wanted to try something similar. The present étude, which begins with the same three notes as another famous chorale for piano—Schumann’s Der Dichter spricht, from Kinderszenen—is dedicated to Rakowski’s Brandeis colleague Eric Chafe, whose office shares a wall with that of the composer and who teaches a course in late Romantic music, a course that often necessitates his meeting with students to demonstrate every possible resolution of the half-diminished seventh chords that pervade the works of Wagner, Wolf and so many others.
Étude #50, No Stranger to Our Planet (2002); étude on register shifts
This disc is bounded by études whose number ends in zero, which in Rakowski Étude World is a sure sign that the rhythmic figure known in jazz as “swing eighths” will be featured prominently. (The lone exception to this is #10, Corrente.) Here there is a new twist, in that the swing eighths figure is frequently interrupted and the clarity of the pulse momentarily compromised by running sixteenth notes. The principal conceit of this piece, however, is sudden, precipitous changes of register; an idea is begun in one area of the keyboard and interrupted by a new idea in a different area, a kind of perpetual “jump cut” effect, to borrow from film terminology.
The title requires slightly more explanation than some, as it is yet another running gag that Rakowski shares with friends; in this case, the phrase is purported to form part of an imaginary opening sentence of a pretentious composer biography. Since a number of the events in the étude struck Rakowski as seeming to come from another planet, the old running gag became the obvious choice for the title.
Because this étude is the final one of Book V, which was conceived as more of a unity than the other books, the same tritone that resolved outward by semitone at the end of Fra Diabolis now resolves inward, deftly completing that book (and this disc).
Notes by Hayes Biggs, 2004
ETUDES VOLUME 3 (recorded 2007, released 2009)
No one hundred and first étude for piano is planned or even contemplated, says David Rakowski, who would be that étude’s composer if he were so inclined.
He is not—at least not at the moment. For over twenty years now, beginning in 1988 with E-Machines, Rakowski has been amassing an enormous and breathtakingly brilliant collection of piano études, gathered into volumes of ten each, a veritable catalog within his catalog. At this writing, ninety such pieces (Books I-IX) exist. This disc completes the recording of the first seven books, and includes the previously unrecorded études from Book V, as well as the entirety of Books VI and VII. David’s stated aim is to complete one more volume’s worth, bringing the grand total to one hundred, and this chapter of his compositional career to a fitting conclusion with a nice round number.
It should be noted that when he first embarked upon the writing of études he certainly had no inkling that they would come to occupy such a major portion of his œuvre. In fact he believed he was done with the genre after composing the first three of them. As it turned out, those three—E-Machines, BAM! and Nocturnal (Bridge CD9157)—, stunning as they are in their own right, opened the floodgates to increasingly brilliant conceits, ingeniously innovative twists on and extensions of the sorts of ideas, techniques and materials appropriate for études, and of course ever more outrageous titles. Initially Rakowski found writing his études to be therapeutic, a respite from an impasse in a larger work or a break between major projects. Over time, however, he has also found them to be a means of refreshing his technique and expanding his expressive horizons, introducing a welcome note of spontaneity and fluency that complements his rigorous training and formidable skills. They are of course a perfect outlet for the evocation and encapsulation of myriad emotions and states of mind; among these can be numbered the multiple facets of David’s unique sense of humor, which ranges from the whimsical to the ironic to the charmingly warped. More recently the études have taken on another function, proving to be a wellspring for generating larger-scale compositions, in particular his Piano Concerto (2005-2006), composed for Marilyn Nonken and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Featured on a new recording of Rakowski’s orchestral music conducted by Gil Rose (BMOP/Sound 1009), the Concerto is one of David’s most beautiful, exquisitely wrought and dynamic works to date, and draws upon several of the études either associated with or specifically composed for Ms. Nonken, including E-Machines, Corrente, The Third, Man, and Sliding Scales (Bridge CD9157), as well as Plucking A and Twelve-Step Program (Bridge CD9121).
Rakowski’s rules for étude composition are as follows: 1) he must start at the beginning and compose from “left to right,” with no preconceived notion of how the piece will unfold; 2) the composition of an étude cannot take longer than six days (the length of time it took him to compose E-Machines); and 3) he can never revise an étude, not ever; he can only start over. In keeping with the succinctness of the genre, as well as with David’s æsthetic preferences, formal elegance and clarity are prized; most of these works can be understood as embodying, in one way or another, traditional notions of exposition, development and recapitulation. (One other rule that was in effect for most of the project but has recently been abrogated, was that every étude whose number ended with a zero would employ the quasi-triplet figure known to jazzers as “swing eighths.”)
The études may be divided loosely into three categories, which can and often do overlap: 1) those that deal primarily with specific musical materials such as chord types, rhythmic figures, dynamic contrasts, intervals or even a single pitch that is obsessively sustained or repeated; 2) those concerned with specific playing techniques (right hand or left hand only, inside the piano, a middle voice played by the nose, tone clusters, pedaling, staccato/legato); and 3) those that explore particular styles or genres (boogie-woogie, rock and roll, funk, progressive rock, ragtime, tango, stride). A possible subcategory has lately opened up that includes pieces employing doublings or alternative keyboard instruments. No. 71, Chase, requires the pianist to play celesta, Berceuse (No. 87) can be performed on piano, toy piano or both, and No. 88, Toyed Together, is for piano and toy piano. There is even an étude for a talking pianist (No. 74, Not), composed for Adam Marks, which employs a text by David’s friend, the author Rick Moody.
Harmonic lucidity, consistency and—very importantly—careful control of the rate at which harmonies change are paramount in Rakowski’s music generally, and the études duly reflect these concerns as well. One of David’s greatest gifts as a composer is his unerring sense of harmonic rightness, which is as evident in virtually every bar of the études as it is in his other music. This flawless harmonic instinct, animated by his contrapuntal mastery, allows him to draw connections between the popular musical influences of his youth (jazz, pop, rock and funk) and the modern masterworks of Schoenberg, Berg, Bartók, Stravinsky, Babbitt and Boulez that also engaged him at a formative age. His lexicon of “cool chords” includes but is not limited to harmonic complexes like the “7th-sharp-9th chord” (e.g. C-E-G-B- flat-E-flat) and its derivatives, beloved not only of blues, jazz and rock artists, but also of many of the twentieth century composers named above. As you shall hear, it turns out that major triads can also qualify as cool chords (No. 65, Rick’s Mood).
In terms of sheer volume David Rakowski has now produced many more piano études than the most venerable and celebrated composers who contributed to the genre (Chopin, Liszt, Scriabin, Rakhmaninov, Debussy and Ligeti), this despite the fact that he himself is not a pianist. It therefore speaks especially well of his efforts in this area that some of the finest performers specializing in the performance of new piano music have enthusiastically embraced these pieces. Amy Briggs has been a particularly stalwart champion of the Rakowski études for a number of years now, and her seemingly inexhaustible pianistic prowess, which encompasses every degree of power and nuance required by this music, render her the most persuasive advocate any composer could desire. In her hands, David’s compositional virtuosity and her pianistic virtuosity become indissolubly wedded.
Not only do Rakowski’s études comprise one of the most significant recent contributions to contemporary solo piano literature, they also provide an excellent point of entry into the musical universe of one of the most gifted, accomplished and original American composers of his generation, presenting the basic elements of his musical language in a clear and distilled form. Even if he holds fast to his resolve to end his exploration of piano études with the completion of Book X, and resists the temptation to go to XI, David Rakowski has with this collection already bestowed a substantial boon upon at least three distinct constituencies: pianists, who can strive to master this music, composers, who can profit from studying it and attempting to mine its secrets, and listeners, who, along with the previous two groups, can marvel at and revel in its manifold delights.
From Book VII:
#70 STUTTER STAB, Étude on sharp dynamic contrasts (2006)
The title, conferred by the composer Beth Wiemann, who is married to Rakowski, is a variation on the expression “stutter step,” a term that has been used both in tennis and in basketball. In tennis it denotes running forward with small steps in a squatting position with the racquet raised in the front, often in preparation for a volley, and the expression sometimes has been appropriated to suggest cautious or uncertain steps in performing a task or reaching a decision. In basketball it refers to a common warm-up drill involving quick shuffling of the feet across a length of flooring, the object being to keep the players alert and on point as they defend their teammates in the actual game. Both usages make a certain amount of sense in the context of this étude, with its nervous energy, skittish, bebop-inspired rhythms and the unpredictability of its dynamics, with their “stabbing” accents, enhanced by the delicious crunchiness of the harmonies. The composer observes that, “in the middle of the piece the chords slow down and get sustained while a line in the middle of the texture emerges and disappears.” Composed in 2006 at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, this is also the first étude with a number ending in zero that is completely devoid of swing eighths.
From Book VI:
#51 ZIPPER TANGO, Tango étude on grace notes (2003)
Written for Amy Briggs’ Tango Project, this étude explores the distinction that David drew between the “slow, sultry tango” and the “faster, more headlong march-like tango.“ The outer sections exemplify the former and the middle section the latter, featuring sinuous lines, luscious harmonies and grace notes alternately sidling up to and mashing up against the main melodic line. Rakowski also appropriated a double grace note figure that he noticed in many of the “sultry” tangos he listened to, which to his ears imparted a special heaviness to the bass. That figure in the low register elicited what ultimately became the title of the piece from Rick Moody, who upon hearing the MIDI realization of the piece, opined that those grace notes sounded like zippers.
#54 PEDAL TO THE METAL, Pedaling etude (2003)
One of six études written in four weeks during a residency at Yaddo, this one (along with several others, it turns out) owes its concept as well as its title to Rick Moody. David describes it as “a piece in which all three pedals are used a lot, and specifically.” Traditionally the damper or sustaining pedal is the most often used of the three, helping to blend harmonies together and aid in producing the illusion of legato. The next most frequently employed is the una corda or soft pedal, which creates a more muted effect, both in terms of actual volume as well as in timbre. The sostenuto pedal catches a pitch (or chord or interval) when it is depressed immediately after having been struck, enabling it to be sustained independently while other notes are played detached or with selective use of the damper pedal; it also allows notes that are depressed silently to be caught and to create a kind of eerily beautiful vapor trail of overtone resonance as other notes are attacked. As long as the sostenuto pedal remains depressed, this resonance will linger for quite a while after the pianist stops playing. Rakowski makes fine use of this device in this étude by means of carefully timed rests. (Listening with headphones is recommended in order to gain the full effect.) The composer notes that the piece “has a two-part structure, with the first dominated by the soft pedal and the second by the sostenuto pedal.” He also makes interesting use of the soft pedal in tandem with the sostenuto pedal, a combination not as frequently encountered even in modern piano literature. It is also noteworthy that many pieces that exploit pedal resonance do so in the context of a slow tempo, which this one, in keeping with its moniker, emphatically does not.
#53 CELL DIVISION, Treble étude on arpeggios (2003)
The arpeggios that generated this étude are rising and falling ones spelling out a C major 7th chord; in many cell phones, including, apparently, David’s at the time he came up with the idea for this piece, these are heard when the phone is turned on (ascending arpeggio) or off (descending arpeggio). Not quite ready yet to begin work on a piece for the New England String Ensemble (the Dream Symphony, 2003), Rakowski thought these figures well-suited to a light and airy étude that remains confined to the upper half of the keyboard; its lowest note is the G below middle C and, fittingly, G is the lowest note of the opening upward arpeggio. After the initial turning-on sound, the “make call” sound (3 notes) is heard, and the piece concludes with the turning-off sound and the “end call” sound (the “make call” sound in reverse). These simple diatonic materials are gradually chromaticized by the accretion of new pitches. Later in the étude, several passages in broken octaves spell out the opening chord, over a longer time span and with interruptions, in its original ordering (G-B-C-E).
#52 MOODY’S BLUES, Rock and roll étude on repeated chords (2003)
Rick Moody, having just viewed a camcorder movie of Amy Briggs performing Étude No. 40, Strident (Bridge CD9157), found it to be a fascinating mix of genuine stride piano and Rakowski’s personal brand of modernism. This intriguing combination, and Amy’s powerful pianism, convinced Moody that Rakowski should write her an étude à la Jerry Lee Lewis, replete with his signature glissandos. (The pianist, however, is not required to stand up while playing, kick away the piano bench or place his or her feet on the keyboard.) “The suggestion was so outrageous that I couldn’t resist trying it,” the composer recalled, “and naturally it came about via an étude in right hand repeated chords.” He came to view it as a modernist piano piece that gradually discovers its inner rock and roll tune. David further points out that the opening harmony, which, with its major-minor, almost bluesy quality, is common currency in modernist composition and eventually morphs—merely by altering one note—into “the chord that Jerry Lee Lewis would pound at if his blues were in C.”
#57 CHORD SHARK, Slow étude on thick chords (2003)
Rakowski’s whimsical titles occasionally belie the lyrical intensity and emotional weight of some of his works. One of two études composed for Corey Hamm for performance in a competition, the concept for Chord Shark, a slow-tempo “cool chord” étude, was suggested by its dedicatee. While Hamm had the C minor prelude of Chopin in mind as a model, David turned for inspiration to the late piano works of Brahms—particular favorites of his—, choosing to base this étude on the Intermezzo, Op. 116, No. 6. Rakowski begins by changing the bass note of Brahms’ opening E major chord to an F natural; he then recontextualizes some of the German master’s own dissonant yet always sonorous harmonies. With painstaking attention to subtleties of voice leading, David simultaneously gives an object lesson in how late nineteenth century Romantic harmony evolved seamlessly into the hyper-Romantic atonal language that he inherited from Schoenberg and Berg, and pays homage to both Romantic and Modernist traditions in his own beautiful, highly personal and ultimately moving manner.
#56 CRAZY EIGHTS, Fast octave and black/white key étude (2003)
To say the very least, there is much for the pianist to keep track of in this étude.
The tempo is extremely rapid, both hands are entirely in octaves throughout its duration, and each hand is restricted to only the black keys or the white keys. Whichever hand has the black keys is given a key signature of five flats. At first it is the right hand plays the white keys while the left plays the black, but the hand distributions reverse at the climax of the piece. One especially tricky technical aspect is that the two hands are dealing with mutually exclusive pitch collections, but at the same time they often come perilously close together. In terms of register, shape and rhythm the recapitulation is identical to the opening, except with the hand assignments flipped. Rakowski describes it as sounding a little like “a conversation between two crazy people (high register, low register) that gets a little heated, and one of them mumbles and walks away.”
#60 ACCENTS OF MALICE, Accent étude (2003)
As mentioned in the opening of these notes, this is the last étude whose number ends in zero that will employ swing eighths. So, in much the same way that a beloved character gets killed off in a television series, Rakowski engineers the demise both of that rhythm and the rule that ordained its use. After the swing eighths pattern is set up and acted upon, some of the measures introduce much faster note values that eventually obliterate not only the swing eighth figures but also any clear sense of pulse. Precedent exists for this kind of treatment in an earlier swing eighths étude, No. 50, No Stranger to Our Planet (Bridge CD9157), but it is carried out more ruthlessly here. This being an “accent” étude, Rakowski usually directs the stress to be placed on the weak part of the swing rhythm, the way any self-respecting jazzer would play them. The accenting becomes more challenging once the swing eighths have succumbed to their fate. David adds, “This was written while I had a particularly intense summer cold, so some of the sudden flurries of accents represent the coughing jags I was getting.”
#58 WOUND TIGHT, Fast chords étude (2003)
Wound Tight, the second of two études written for Corey Hamm to play in a competition (along with Chord Shark), is another “cool chord” étude, but this time at a much faster clip. Most of the piece is comprised of very rapidly moving chords, with both hands moving in perfect rhythmic unison, occasionally interrupted by a brief passage in slow chords. Once again, as with Crazy Eights, Rakowski invokes the image of two insane people engaged in conversation. This time he describes their exchange as animated, adding that at some point they “stop listening to each other and scream a little bit.”
#55 EIGHT MISBEHAVIN’, Slow octave étude (2003)
Composed as a wedding present to Rick Moody and Amy Osborn, this étude was written on the day of their nuptials, and was designed to be simple enough for Amy—and, by extension, David—to play. In contrast to some of the other octave-based études, this piece is quite restrained and gentle in character. The first two bars are taken from the opening of the slow movement of Brahms’ F minor Clarinet Sonata, Op. 120, No. 1, and the entire étude is spun out seamlessly from this beginning.
#59 ZECCATELLA, Staccato-legato étude (2003)
“Zecca” is Italian for “tick,” one of which attached itself to David while he was composing this étude. Geoffrey Burleson, another wonderful pianist for whom several Rakowski piano études have been written, suggested the title be a variation on tarantella, a whirling dance traditionally said to be caused by a tarantula bite; “zeccatella” would therefore be a dance resulting from a tick bite. Written for Amy Briggs, the impetus for this piece was her suggestion that David compose a staccato-legato étude – a legato line surrounded by staccato figuration. The melody is first presented in triple octaves, with the upper voice legato and the lower one staccato; the lower part then takes on more of the character of a true bass line. David’s initial characterization of the staccato figuration was that of “a seasick samba,” which is not altogether an inaccurate description. Gradually the texture is taken over by a 32nd note figure first heard in bar 14, and the piece becomes— similarly to the tarantella—more of a whirling dance.
From Book V:
#42 MADAM I’M ADAM, Little palindrome étude (2002)
The challenge Rakowski has set himself here is that of constructing a piece solely out of phrases that are palindromes (consisting of the same notes forwards and backwards, converging on a central pitch, dyad or chord). In fact, the entire étude is itself a large palindrome, the center of which comprises the highest and lowest pitches in the whole piece, with no other notes in between. In order to counteract the stasis inherent in this extreme degree of symmetry, sufficient variety in the phrase lengths is crucial, and David takes great pains to ensure that variety. He begins the piece with a very short, three-note palindromic phrase, follows it with others of varying lengths, and continues to expand and contract these component modules as necessary to maintain a sense of direction and lyrical flow. Additionally, he often has overlapping palindromes occurring between the two hands. The second half adds other simple palindromes against the playing out of the large-scale one. With these subtle adjustments, Rakowski ensures that rigor never becomes rigidity, and that the essential poetry of the piece comes through unimpeded.
#44 TRIADDLED, Étude on triads (2002)
Only triads—major, minor, diminished and augmented—are to be found in this étude. Here, however, rather than being savored for themselves alone they are constantly being combined and recombined to form polychords (chords made up of two or more simple harmonies, e.g. triads). It is well known to composers that where two or more chords are gathered together they can be combined to create what is amazingly similar to a chemical reaction, much like what happens when the tastes of two different foods interact. Some chords blend almost seamlessly, while others seem mutually repellent. Many flavors of polychords are thus available, depending upon how discerning a palate the composer possesses. They can be crunchy, or sweet-and-sour, or cloying, or tart, or warm, or … crunchy. (The fact that each chord contains at least one note that is foreign to the other virtually guarantees a certain amount of crispiness.) Fortunately, David is a very fine cook and nearly as dedicated to ferreting out new gastronomic delights as he is to composing, so he is perhaps at an advantage when it comes to serving up aural deliciousness. He describes the work as a fantasia, essentially a free form, but it seems to have four basic sections, the last of which is a kind of abbreviated return of the opening material. After the opening there is a slower, somewhat mysterious sounding section, with a prominent pedal point on A in the bass. This pedal point returns in the fast music that follows, this time irregularly repeated in the treble register of the piano. Rakowski says that the rising triads from the first fast music of Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite—which themselves form a polychord—were the inspiration for the upward arpeggiations in this passage.
#45 PINK TAB, Accelerando-ritenuto étude (2002)
Its seeming pharmaceutical reference notwithstanding, the title of this étude has nothing to do either with drugs of any kind, or with phrases that speed up and slow down, which is ostensibly Rakowski’s preoccupation here. David modeled the piece on Countess Geschwitz’s music in Berg’s opera Lulu, in which speeding up and slowing down becomes a leitmotif for that character. Adding to the technical gauntlet he threw down—and subsequently took up— is the fact that the accelerando-ritenuto phrases vary in length and speed, at times overlapping into as many as four parts. There are noteworthy pedal points, particularly one on D that drops out of earshot from time to time but ultimately always resurfaces. Though the title really can’t be explained at all, this is what David had to say about it: “Pink Tab is actually nonsense. More than fifteen years ago, when my friend Ross Bauer was writing a large ensemble piece, I dreamed about its premiere, at which it was entitled Pink Tab. Ross thought this was so funny that he told Bruce Taub, his editor at C.F. Peters, that he was submitting a piece with that name, and Bruce was unamused. Therefore, I used it instead.” Nonsense or no, the closing harmonies are among the most beautiful in the entire étude collection.
#49 SALTIMMANO, Finger-pedaling étude (2002)
Finger-pedaling of course does not involve pedaling at all. It is defined as the careful use of fingering to create legato without the use of the pedal, in order to allow staccato and other figuration to surround a long sustained line without unwanted blurring of the harmonies, and to foster contrapuntal clarity. Finger-pedaling is particularly prized in performing J. S. Bach’s keyboard works on the modern piano, as there is still strong disapproval in many quarters of using any pedal at all in his music. The development of a dependable finger-pedaling technique removes this temptation and probably also builds character. The composer describes Saltimanno thusly: “It’s got a long line surrounded by jumpy, jittery atonal figuration and a surprise chorale in the middle that emerges as the contrapuntal lines slow down. The title means ‘jumps in hand’, a pun on the famous Italian dish saltimbocca, which means ‘jumps in your mouth.’ ”
From Book VII:
#61 MÉNAGE À DROIT, Right hand étude (2004)
Graced with another gem of a title from Rick Moody, this étude for right hand alone was composed to help cheer up Amy Briggs, who was suffering from tendonitis in her left hand. The trajectory of the piece begins with light, fast figuration in the treble, notated in small notes—à la Chopin—to differentiate it from the main tune in the lower voice, gradually transforms rhythmically into a bit of a swing eighths groove, moves into the bass, and works its way back to the opening texture. A pedal D in the middle register, with the aid of the sostenuto pedal, is held and repeated, eventually moving down to C and signaling the beginning of the transition back to the opening music, before another brief excursion to the bass prepares the way for the final bar, in which a luminous chord is built up that covers the entire registral spectrum, with one final nod to the initial figuration near the very top of the keyboard.
#62 NAME THAT TURN, Étude on turns (2004)
This étude bears the distinction of the longest hiatus between its completion and the granting of its title, which was provided by the composer Hillary Zipper over brunch about a week and a half after David finished it. The initial impetus came from his having heard some Haydn songs at a student recital at Brandeis. The word “turn” refers to an embellishing figure that consists of two descending steps followed by an ascending one (or its inversion), and many of the phrases in the piano part began with turns. He soon wondered “what a piece with a LOT of turns would sound like,” and realized that it would of course be incumbent upon him to write such a piece and find out, which he of course did. About midway through he indulges in a couple of proper Hindemith-style fugatos in three voices, and adds an extra pianistic hurdle near the end as fast broken octaves—a signature move in quite a number of the Rakowski études—are piled on top of the turns.
#64 A THIRD IN THE HAND Étude on arpeggiated thirds (2004)
Marked “Swift and Airy” and described by its composer as “a very simple piece on arpeggiated (‘melodic’) thirds,” this is actually a rather sneaky little piece. The thirds begin in the right hand, making use of the aforementioned (as in Pedal to the Metal) old trick of silently depressing a cluster in the bass and holding it with the sostenuto pedal, to obtain that lovely left over resonance. In addition, the phrasing works against the meter, giving no inkling of the true gigue-like pulse. Lulled into complacency, the listener at first might not realize that a second voice has entered. The two voices gambol about and tumble over one another, until yet a third voice arrives, infecting the gigue rhythm with suspiciously “swing eighths” style gestures, which, in the New World Order (post-Accents of Malice), we can now surmise are still fair game as long as the étude’s number doesn’t end with zero. As is often the case, all registers are eventually brought into play and the texture thins out significantly as the music returns to a mostly treble realm. At the conclusion, an octave is repeated in the right hand filled in with alternating major and minor thirds, and the ending sonority is the not-so-surprising G-sharp minor.
#67 AIN’T GOT NO RIGHT, Left hand étude (2005)
David often invites friends to help him name his études, in what he often refers to as “the title sweepstakes,” and in the case of this étude, the competition grew quite heated indeed. Corey Hamm (for whom Chord Shark and Wound Tight had been written) had contacted Rakowski to say that he had tendonitis in his right hand, and wondered if David had any music for the left hand alone that he might be able to work on, perform or even premiere. Two right-hand études already existed, but nothing as yet for the left-hand, so David replied that, unfortunately, he would be unable to help Corey out this time. But as David remembered that his February vacation at Brandeis was imminent, and after he had thought about it for a while, he realized that he couldn’t not write it, and set to work. Rakowksi recalls, “Besides Left Out to Dry and Sinister Motives, pressure was heavy to call it Gauche Busters. But as I passed Rossini’s restaurant in Concord, Mass., on my drive home from work, the title came to me.” We shall likely never know just what, if anything, the restaurant sighting had to do with any of this, but as for the music itself, the composer continues, “A bouncy but terse syncopated opening gives way to a more flowing middle section, which makes its way back to the opening music, and climaxes in a passage that moves from register to register quite quickly.” For this listener, Ain’t Got No Right has a kind of energy that seems somewhat akin to that of the “faster, more headlong march-like tango” referred to earlier in the notes for Zipper Tango.
#65 RICK’S MOOD, Chorale-étude on major triads (2002/4/5)
There is an earlier, non-étude version of this piece, which resulted when Rick Moody challenged David to write a piece employing only major triads. Rakowski, in turn challenged Moody to write a rhyming poem. The first version was written in two and a half days and premiered by Amy Briggs as an encore at Brandeis in March of 2003. Rakowski did not initially number the piece among the official études, but when Rick Moody asked him why it didn’t qualify as an étude, the only answer he could come up with was that it wasn’t long enough. Twice, in 2004 and 2005, he revisited it, adding, lengthening and rewriting various phrases, finally inserting in into Book 7 in time to assume its rightful place as Étude No. 65.
Unlike Triaddled, this étude sticks with one triad at a time, and only one variety: major. David directs that this work should be played “Like a Protestant Hymn,” but also flexibly and expressively.” It does sound a bit like an organ improvisation, somewhat reminiscent of Copland’s setting of Emily Dickinson’s “I’ve Heard an Organ Talk Sometimes,” but with a more placid, less unhinged aspect. At first, the sheer velocity of the harmonic rhythm (not very different from that of many of Rakowski’s non-triadic pieces) imparts a surreal quality, almost as though the listener is watching time-lapse photography of clouds passing by, seemingly unrelated one to another, but gradually taking on certain logical connections supplied by the eye of the beholder and the speed of the images as perceived. The harmonies, similarly, are not connected by anything resembling a traditional tonal progression, but once again Rakowski’s superb command of voice leading connections renders them not only logical, but also extraordinarily affecting.
#66 LESS IS, Impatient minimalist étude on chord-building (2005)
While its title ultimately came from Amy Briggs, the conceit was, yet again, the brainchild of Rick Moody, who wondered aloud one day about what Rakowski might sound like if he were a minimalist after the manner of Phillip Glass, but using dissonant chords instead of consonant ones, and faster chord changes. While perhaps not a question for the ages, in a bygone era it could (though likely would not) have been pondered by the likes of Rich Little. (“What would David Rakowski sound like if he were a minimalist composer like Phillip Glass? I think it would go something like this.”) In his response to Rick’s query, David decided to use an upward-moving arpeggio from the last of his just-completed Sex Songs, as the main material, an appropriate choice, as this particular song was a setting of a text by Moody. This arpeggio is not a normal one, but more like a chord that builds from the bottom up, one note at a time, with the individual pitches of the arpeggio perceived as the discrete notes of a melody. That establishes itself as the norm for this piece, along with a repeated E, as well as the inversion of the basic gesture, i.e., the chord’s being built from the top note down. At the climax of the piece, both versions of the gesture occur, and the harmonies certainly are a far cry from what would be expected in a Phillip Glass work.
#63 KILLER B’S, Étude on a pedal (2004)
As David saw it, the problem was this: in a chromatic idiom with a fast harmonic rhythm like his, is it possible sustain the listener’s attention with a piece built on a pedal tone? This is his attempt at a solution. He begins the étude by having the pedal tone repeat in a straightforward quarter note pulse. Over time he introduces first the dotted eighth, and then alternations of dotted eighth with eighth, to thrown the rhythm off kilter and also to intensify the obsessive quality of the gesture. Contributing to this is the fact that the B starts to move into other registers. Halfway through the piece, the repeated B starts slowly and continues to build up a head of steam, in what the composers says is a veiled tribute to the B’52s’s tune “Rock Lobster.” Ultimately the B is picked up and placed into the tried and true Rakowski broken octave gambit, used in a particularly ingenious way here. He methodically uses all the B’s on the keyboard but the lowest one; every time it seems that that low B will be attained, such hopes are dashed by a landing on the lowest C. The last time this happens the C is sustained, only to resolve downward to the B, just in time for a brief recapitulation. It is interesting to speculate that at least in the back of his mind Rakowski might have been thinking of the Invention on the note B from Act III of Berg’s Wozzeck, which culminates in Wozzeck’s murder of Marie, and, unlike this étude, actually does resolve on C.
#69 PALM DE TERRE, Étude on clusters (2006)
Composed at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and given its title by Beth Wiemann, this piece reflects Rakowski’s desire to write “a slow and dreamy kind of étude, where I tried to make soft, pretty clusters and not the vicious poundy ones so often associated with clusters. Not a complicated piece, it sounds a little like Ives in places.” A wide ranging, elastic, lyrical line slowly and quietly works its way through the registers, accompanied by the ever-gentle, bell-like clusters, which are played sometimes by only one hand and at others by both. David directs that white-key clusters be played with the palm of the hand and all black-key clusters by the flattened fingers. The clusters are notated in such a way as to provide maximum flexibility for the performer, allowing him or her to alter the width of the clusters to accommodate that of the player’s hand, rendering it as easy as possible to execute the clusters at the requisite soft dynamic level. Besides Ives, a hint of Debussy can be detected in this jewel of an étude as well.
#68 ABSOFUNKINLUTELY, Funk étude (2005)
Rakowski calls this title “the politer version of the last line spoken by Mr. Big in the last episode of Sex in the City.” Having just been freed from the burden of a music department chairmanship, he was supposed to embark on a new piano trio. Not yet in the frame of mind to tackle that project, he decided instead to write a new étude. Again Rick Moody’s counsel was sought, and Rick suggested that David write a piece based on “Tower of Power licks.” Though Tower of Power is a favorite of the composer, he was not inclined to take this advice too literally, because he did not relish the thought of having to seek other advice—of a legal nature—down the road, such licks presumably being under copyright. He instead opted for some generic figures found in many funk tunes, and created a wildly celebratory piece that pays homage to some of his favorite music. The excellent young pianist Adam Marks took up this piece and premiered it in New York, later taking it to the Concours International de Piano d’Orléans in 2006. This étude won a Chevillion-Bonnaud Prize for the best new piano work played in the first round of that competition.
The first two short sections (with markings of, respectively, “Dirty” and “A little less dirty”) are repeated, and range all over the keyboard. The long middle section is a long build-up marked—partly in reference to a piece by the composer John Adams, but mostly out of relief over new found liberty from department chair duties—“Dirty (The Not Chairman Dances”). This gradually becomes “Filthy,” climaxes on a couple of wide repeated chords, and then a coda ensues (“Still dirty but more respectable”), which includes a figure that can be repeated 3 to 7 times, as the spirit so moves.
Notes by Hayes Biggs, © 2009
Études Volume 4. (recorded 2014, released 2016)
É, as in Étude
Our story so far:
In 1988, David Rakowski wrote his first solo piano music, a short, fast, virtuosic work that he dubbed E-Machines, in order to take a break from a larger piece on which progress temporarily had stalled, and — half-jokingly — to get pianists to quit pestering him to write something for them. He found the concision of this type of small-scale piece congenial, as he was decidedly leery of writing, as he put it, “big, Romantic, slurpy, heavy, loud, overdramatic and self-important piano pieces.” Extended, potentially portentous works of that ilk of course would not likely be what one would turn to as a means of taking a break from much of anything, and attempting to compose such a piece would have been, as his characterization above attests, temperamentally alien to him. E-Machines is not particularly serious, except in terms of the level of craft David reliably brings to all of his music; it is even a bit flip, and definitely more off-the-cuff in its approach than much of his other music up to that point. Its creation gave rise to the basic rules that he ultimately would set for himself when writing a piano étude: 1) he had to start at the beginning and compose from “left to right,” with no a priori notion of how the piece would unfold; 2) the composition of an étude was to take no longer than six days (the length of time it took him to compose E-Machines); and 3) once an étude was begun, no revisions were permitted.
For three years after finishing E-Machines, however, Rakowski was blissfully unaware that what he had written was in fact an étude, until Lyn Reyna, the pianist who premiered it, explained to him that that was indeed what it was, and that the second and third such pieces he had composed in the meantime — BAM! and Nocturnal — were études as well.
Even so, David believed for some time after this revelation that those first three études would constitute the full extent of his involvement with the genre. He did not yet have a clue that he would go on to compose 97 more, bringing the total to 100, gathered into 10 books of 10 each. Rakowski occupies a special niche in the history of virtuoso solo piano repertoire: I was able to find only one other composer of piano études, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, who managed to compose 100 of them. Unlike Sorabji (and of course Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Bolcom, and Ligeti), Rakowski’s training was not as a pianist, but as a trombonist. Still, some of the finest pianists specializing in contemporary music have embraced his études and found them to be idiomatic, albeit eminently challenging. Amy Briggs is one such pianist, and in this and her three previous recordings of David’s études, she not only has demonstrated dazzling pianistic prowess and an expressive depth and musical sensitivity that matches that of Rakowski’s music, but also sheer fearlessness in tackling this exceptionally demanding collection.
Rakowski’s piano études were composed over a period of 22 years, from 1988 to 2010. Many of them were composed for the same purpose as E-Machines: as a respite from labor on a larger work in which he found himself at an impasse, or, if he wasn’t yet ready to embark upon a major project that awaited his attention, as a means of getting his compositional juices flowing, perhaps with a bit of instant gratification for good measure to energize him for the more ambitious task ahead. “Writing unrelated pieces that are brief and single-minded,” says Rakowski, “helps keep the gears moving and helps me return to the bigger piece with a fresh perspective (and reminds me that I know something about composing).” It ultimately did that and more. It taught him that his excellent training and superb technique would stand him in good stead even as he allowed himself to be more spontaneous in his approach to the musical material. It taught him that he could play games with the myriad ways notes can be put together; this sense of play gave his music greater depth and expressive range, and made it genuinely fun, in the richest, fullest sense, while in no way diluting the seriousness of his intent or the integrity of the piece. It taught him how to spin out longer phrases, and how to generate genuinely fast music — not merely music with lots of fast notes — and keep it going for longer spans; a significant component of his ability to do this is the control of the rate of harmonic change that writing these pieces also taught him.
Besides providing a welcome hiatus in the midst of struggling with a recalcitrant large-scale work, études could fulfill other purposes: sometimes Rakowski composed with a specific pianist in mind or in response to a request from a performer or friend. Some études came to exist because of David’s having come up with a perfect title that as yet had no piece to which he could attach it.
For all their surface differences, Rakowski has noted that his études mostly fit a similar, fairly traditional formal pattern: expository music, developmental music, some sort of recapitulation and perhaps a coda. He covers the customary technical and pyrotechnical territory staked out by Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, et al., and expands it. The following excerpt from my liner notes for the previous Rakowski étude CD suffices to describe some of that expansion and names several of the études featured on the present disc as representatives of various classifications into which these pieces fall.
The études may be divided loosely into three categories, which can and often do overlap: 1) those that deal primarily with specific musical materials such as chord types, rhythmic figures, dynamic contrasts, intervals or even a single pitch that is obsessively sustained or repeated; 2) those concerned with specific playing techniques (right hand or left hand only, inside the piano, a middle voice played by the nose, tone clusters, pedaling, staccato/legato); and 3) those that explore particular styles or genres (boogie-woogie, rock and roll, funk, progressive rock, ragtime, tango, stride). A possible subcategory has lately opened up that includes pieces employing doublings or alternative keyboard instruments. No. 71, Chase, requires the pianist to play celesta, Berceuse (No. 87) can be performed on piano, toy piano or both, and No. 88, Toyed Together, is for piano and toy piano. There is even an étude for a talking pianist (No. 74, Not), composed for Adam Marks, which employs a text by David’s friend, the author Rick Moody.
“The études as a collection are somewhat eclectic,” writes the composer, “though that isn’t really the point. I wrote every one, and I endeavored to make each one sound like only I could have written it.” They do sound that way. His mastery, imagination, compositional craft, humor, and expressive range shine forth in virtually every bar of every one. Rakowski’s études are a testament to his evolution as a composer — one of the finest of his generation — over the course of over two decades, decades in which he has steadily discovered, again in his own words, “more joy in the simple act of invention.”
#77 ECCO ECO
Literally, “here echo,” or perhaps “here is echo,” the title plays on the homonymic relationship between these Italian words. In 2007 the pianist Corey Hamm suggested an “echo” étude to David, who assumed that Corey was “thinking of Baroque ‘echo sonatas,’ wherein phrases were repeated immediately by contrasting groups of instruments.” Hamm — Rakowski continues — “also suggested that the echoes could encroach on and destroy or shatter each other. In this piece, the echoes are usually simple events that repeat at various intervals, each time softer, as if played through a delay box.” This last term, David explains, refers to a device that “performers in the subway use to make new age echoey stuff. Technically, it samples sound and loops it regularly, at a decreasing dynamic, at a time interval of your choice.” In Ecco Eco, the executant’s chief challenge is that this time interval changes frequently over the course of the work, and the echo of earlier material barely has time to register with the listener and fade before some new element is introduced. Obviously the dynamic fade-out is difficult to achieve precisely, because the spaces between an initiating event and its ensuing echoes can vary from four eighth notes all the way down to three sixteenths; at the same time the performer must keep track of all the simultaneous layers that are accumulating, giving each its due.
#86 PROG SPRINGS ETERNAL
This étude fits into the third category listed above, in referring to a specific style or genre. The term “progressive rock,” or “prog rock,” is used to refer to a certain subgenre of rock music that emphasizes, among other things, longer form works in lieu of traditional pop song forms, more complex time signatures, orchestration that moves out of the realm of guitar-based rock (and often relies heavily on electronic keyboards, including synthesizers), and influences from various “small-c” classical, modernist and modern jazz traditions. Some of its more significant exponents include Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, and King Crimson. As he has numerous times, David in 2007 asked Rick Moody for ideas for études. Moody suggested prog rock as a jumping off point, but when Rakowski asked him what kinds of things he’d expect in such an étude, he wasn’t able to offer specifics, other than to send a CD with some examples. David found the CD to contain a somewhat bewildering array of kinds of music that seemed to be subsumed under the heading of prog rock. A year passed before he asked another friend, the pianist Geoff Burleson, himself a distinguished interpreter and inspirer of several Rakowski études, and one knowledgeable about prog rock, to further elucidate some of the technical features of that repertoire, which included what pop musicians know as “sus4” chords (a class of harmonies built from perfect fourth and fifth, as well as major second intervals — think of a chord comprising, from the bottom up, C, F and G — a chord type also found in modernist works by Stravinsky, Hindemith and others), faux Baroque counterpoint and figuration and an emphasis on instrumental virtuosity. “With that in hand,” David wrote, “I was able to write the piece in three working days.” The étude is largely based on the initial ostinato figure, a riff that starts in the bass and repeats for much of the piece, gradually becoming obscured until it returns to the forefront near the end.
David had inadvertently downloaded the score of Debussy’s Feux d’artifice (the final piece from his Préludes, Book II), from an online sheet music archive, and decided to give a lecture on it to his second-year theory students. As he prepared for that lecture, he found himself very taken with the work. “It was intriguing to look at and to hear,” he writes, “and was so provocative and simple that I resolved to write an étude inspired by it. After I finished my big project for 2007 (a wind ensemble piece), I wrote it while in the Stone Tower at Yaddo. Like Debussy’s, mine begins quiet, gets loud, and gets quiet again.” David’s piece opens with undulating arpeggio patterns in the bass, into which he embeds an oscillating half-step melodic figure in the middle voices. Occasionally this music become faster and much more animated; Rakowski likens these passages to “fireworks that interrupt idle waiting-around time.” Like many fireworks displays — and like Debussy’s prélude — smaller bursts of activity gradually increase in frequency, culminating in a final climactic profusion, followed by one more small burst, the remainders, as it were.
Commissioned through a grant from the Argosy Foundation, this étude was requested by Donald Berman, who wanted an étude with an optional celesta part. (If no celesta is available, it is possible to play the celesta part on the piano an octave higher than written.) The composer’s succinct description follows: “Here there is a flurry of arpeggiations in sixteenth notes that support a slow melody, occasionally interrupted by an upward-rising chorale in the piano only.” The title refers to the unison passages between the piano and celesta that occasionally move out of phase by one note, temporarily creating the effect of a canon at the rhythmic distance of a sixteenth note and subsequently “righting” itself. This phasing technique, along with the initial, gently repetitive effect, suggests some engagement with the hypnotic effect of minimalism, but with faster moving, less predictable harmonies.
#73 HEAVY HITTER
Marked fortissimo sempre, this étude was the result of a suggestion by yet another pianist, Mike Kirkendoll, who put forth the idea of a “heavy” étude – an idea that appealed to the composer to counterbalance his earlier pianissimo étude Silent But Deadly. David had just finished his first piano concerto, which has an extended, fully written out cadenza, but also allows for the performer to write or improvise his or her own. He liked the beginning of his composed cadenza enough to give it a life beyond the concerto; in the event that no one ever opted to play that cadenza, Rakowski reused its opening as that of Heavy Hitter. “Most of the piece is quite athletic,” says David, “with a motive of repeated chords in which an inner voice moves chromatically. At the two-thirds mark, a broken octave figure becomes the incipit of the final section leading to a quasi-recapitulation.” (This broken octave figure has its origins in the end of that first étude-that-almost-wasn’t-called-an-étude, E-Machines; if you listen carefully, you will discover it in other places in the collection as well.)
#72 DORIAN BLUE
Also for Donald Berman, this étude states a melody three times, a tune in the Dorian mode on E, the scale of which is E-F-sharp-G-A-B-C-sharp-D-E. Rapid two-hand flourishes are the technical challenges; these become much more pervasive the last time through the melody, which must continue its placid, lyrical course unperturbed. Many of these flourishes are quieter versions of the broken octave figure mentioned above in connection with Heavy Hitter. Rakowski’s harmonic shading and highlighting of his modal melody is somewhat reminiscent of Debussy’s approach to the various harmonizations of the main motive in “Des pas sur la neige,” from his first book of Préludes. In the Rakowski, the first time through the tune, the harmony is fairly diatonic and modal, sticking closely to the notes of the original scale, only gradually introducing foreign tones. The second time, in the words of the composer, “chords moving chromatically and parallel become gradually thicker. In the last pass, all the registers of the piano are active, especially the deep bass.”
#81 KAI’N VARIATION
Marked “Slightly disturbed,” this is another quasi-minimalist étude, at least in its opening gesture. In the fall of 2007, Kai Schumacher, a pianist in Amsterdam finishing a degree in piano performance, approached David Rakowski and a goodly number of other composers, to write variations on a tune that Kai had written, to be collected into a large set of variations. This set would be featured on Schumacher’s final recital, sharing the ptogram with Frederic Rzewski’s monumental variation set, The People United Will Never Be Defeated. David describes Kai’s theme as “a fairly straightforward cocktail-piano type tune in D minor with a chromatically falling bass and a deceptive ending.” David calls his variation “an étude on diatonic scale fragments’ — the opening D minor scale of Kai’s tune is the incipit of my variation, which turns into perpetual motion Bach-style writing.” The beginning of the piece attempts to state the first five notes of the D minor scale, but instead of landing on the A, keeps knocking its head against the G-sharp immediately below.
Pianist Adam Marks’s dissertation topic at NYU was piano pieces that call for the performer to speak while playing, a well-known example being Frederic Rzewski’s De Profundis, based on a text by Oscar Wilde. Marks suggested Rakowski try his hand at a “talking pianist” étude, an idea he initially rejected. “But since it represented the kind of weird challenge that eats at my brain,” said David, “I started looking around for texts that were appropriate for a pianist to say while playing. I asked Rick Moody for some ideas, but ultimately none of them bore fruit.”
Coincidentally, David discovered a minimalist poem of Moody’s that the writer had sent him earlier called Not, which slowly assembles the components of the phrase “Not happy with it, not lying down for it” by combining them into many fragments and gradually “revealing” the underlying text. Rakowski characterizes his piece as “a kind of absurdist monodrama over a piano part that is by turns agitated and serene.” These psychological states are reflected in the harmonic contrasts; complex chords coexist uneasily with simple major triads. This is far and away the longest of all the études, lasting some seven and a half minutes. It was premiered by Adam Marks in Paris in the Salle Cortot, on a recital sponsored by the Orléans piano competition.
#85 DIMINISHING RETURN
Composed at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy in 2008, Diminishing Return is related to and was prompted by its predecessor, What’s Hairpinning. Both études treat the issue of individual dynamics, but whereas #84 is about dynamic swells (soft to loud and back), this time the emphasis is on fast repeated notes that diminuendo, i.e,. become progressively softer. The bunches of notes that get repeated vary in length, of course, and, similarly to What’s Hairpinning, center around D. The final sonority (C-sharp, D and E) contains the same pitch classes as the ending of #84. Also germane to the title, the opening D is also part of a prominent diminished triad (G-sharp, B, D).
Inspired by the anticipated birth of Rick Moody’s and Amy Osborn’s first child, a girl they named Hazel Jane, this was simultaneously a gift in honor of that approaching event as well as a thank you to Rick for providing numerous excellent ideas for études. It seemed appropriate that the piece be simple enough for Rick or Amy to play, and also fit the range of a typical toy piano. In search of inspiration, David turned to The Five Fingers — a collection of eight brief pieces written in 1921 by Igor Stravinsky for his children. Unlike Stravinsky, who only used a single five-finger position in the right-hand for each of his pieces, Rakowski has different five-finger positions in each hand, which shift during the course of the piece; these shifts are indicated in the score, which also indicates that it “may be played on piano, toy piano, or both.” As you will hear, it turns out that it may be played on celesta as well, because it was there, having been rented for the recording session, and because why not?
Twilight is an étude on thirds, an example of one of the more traditional subcategories of the genre, that of homing in on a particular interval. One of the students in David’s orchestration course had transcribed Schumann’s “Zwielicht” from the Op. 39 Liederkreis for voice and orchestra, one of the most haunting and enigmatic songs of the entire cycle. The sinuous accompaniment figures that begin the Schumann song were the springboard for the étude. “The opening sequence of thirds,” writes Rakowski, “is repeated many times, both literally and in augmentation [i.e., the same melody in proportionally longer note values].” The lowest voice gradually works its way into the lowest register, ushering in a louder, much more active, even violent central section. Roughly 30 seconds before the end, a few brief quotes from the Schumann song emerge seamlessly — effortlessly — from Rakowski’s textures.
#82 F THIS
Not long after Marilyn Nonken, another distinguished pianist who has taken up a significant number of Rakowski’s études, premiered the piano concerto he wrote for her, she e-mailed David to ask if he knew of any piano pieces built entirely on one note, as one of her students had inquired about this. David forwarded the question to his colleague, the composer Ken Ueno, who said there were a few pieces that use one pitch class in many different octaves, but none he was aware of that used only one entirely in a single register. According to David, “he added, ‘sounds like a Davytude.’” At first, David demurred, but ultimately decided to give it a whirl. The chosen pitch is the F below middle C. “The idea of the piece,” he said, “was to make it sound fast, use lots of dynamic and color differentiation (including plucked and stopped notes, and resonance caused by some notes held down with the sostenuto pedal), and move rapidly from pulse to pulse via metric modulations. I dedicated the piece both to Marilyn and Ken, and Marilyn premiered it as an encore at NYU in February of 2008.”
F This effectively turns the piano into a drum, and the various playing methods (pizzicato, stopping) correspond aurally to what a player of a hand drum would do to alter the timbre by striking the head of the drum in different areas.]
#89 THIS MEANS WARBLE
This one is inspired by the sounds of winter birds, particularly the two-note songs of chickadees, on a sunny, yet cold and bleak January morning, punctuated by odd and unpredictable silences.
“For some strange reason,” David says, “it occurred to me that it might be a nice challenge to take two-note chirpy sounds and try to make an etude out of them — plus it would force me into the very high register of the piano, which I don’t use a lot.” This imparts a particular kind of starkness to the texture, since there are a few really low notes, and precious little at all in the middle range.
The result is an étude with a very strange yet compelling and even haunting kind of continuity. The bird call motives gradually migrate to the lowest register (more like squawks than chirps), prompting David to jokingly imagine that the final fortissimo outburst in the low register, was “a really, really big bird yelling at all the little ones to go away.”
The “clave” rhythm, typically a five-stroke syncopated pattern, is a staple of virtually all commercial Latin music, providing the underpinning for all that happens on the music’s surface. Geoffrey Burleson wanted a clave-based étude to perform in recital at his school, which has a strong commercial music program and many Latin music specialists.
Rakowski begins slowly with the effect of simultaneous clave rhythms in different tempi; there’s a gradual sense of speeding up that ultimately allows the true pulse of the piece to be discovered. “At the halfway point,” writes David, “several simultaneous out-of-phase claves give the impression of a jerky arpeggiation, and that eventually evolves into a bebop solo accompanied by left-hand music on the clave rhythm. At the end, the slow claves return.”
Another Rakowski rule for études is that each book is required to have one simple one that even David is able to play (Berceuse is one such piece), and this is the one for Book X. Like several of the études, this one is based on a single type of harmony, in this instance the dominant seventh chord, used here in a lyrical meditation, with a distinctly Schumannesque ambience.
The dedication is to Augusta Read Thomas, who, in David’s words, is “a very, very good friend, and has been a fan of the études for a long time. It’s because of her programming of some at the Chicago Symphony that I met Amy Briggs, for instance, and she programmed six for the Contemporary Music Festival at Tanglewood in summer 2009 (my first performance there since I was a Fellow in 1982). She herself has six piano études, one of them dedicated to me, so here I return the favor.”
David’s friend, the composer Jim Ricci, wrote a blog post about polkas and about his intention to write a Modernist one. There were plenty of ironic polkas by Russian composers, Ricci said, but apparently none by Americans. David continues:
“I liked the idea, so when I finished my composing work for the summer, I did the same. I looked up several polkas on YouTube, and figured out the customary gestures – especially the pointless accordion virtuosity that permeated many of them – and wrote the piece in four days, in Vermont. I sent it to Jim, who it turns out had never written his Modernist polka, but sent me instead his variations on Silent Night.”
Apart from the de rigeur “pointless accordion virtuosity” and nods to Shostakovich and Prokofiev, it also includes a few subtle American-style syncopations that seem to connect polka to ragtime.
#84 WHAT’S HAIRPINNING
“Hairpins” is the name musicians informally give to a crescendo symbol (an outward opening wedge), followed immediately by its inverted form, the diminuendo, in which the wedge shape is reversed so that it appears to gradually close. The desired result is a dynamic swell, from softer to louder and back again. “I got the sound of crescendo-diminuendo repeated notes in my brain and wondered just how much I could slow down my compositional metabolism in an étude based on that figure,” says the composer. This is another brief flirtation with minimalism, but as always decidedly on David’s own terms, especially with regard to the types of harmonies he builds over the course of the piece. The first real chord change happens roughly a minute and a half in, but then the harmonic rhythm picks up speed, with increasing chromaticism, particularly of a descending variety. Another wrinkle that mitigates the minimalism is the use of simultaneous pulses in different voices moving at different speeds, or polyrhythm. Added to these challenges is the fact that the performer must, as the piece goes on, execute independent dynamic swells in two different voices in each hand. Like its immediate successor, Diminishing Return, it begins with a focus on the D above middle C, and ends with the same pitch classes (C-sharp, D and E) as that étude.
#88 TOYED TOGETHER
Toyed Together marks the first time in David’s collection that a toy piano has been brought into an étude as an equal partner with the piano; there is no optional version with piano alone, as is the case with the other pieces on this disc that employ toy piano. Rakowski had recently enjoyed the success of his first piano concerto, which incorporates the toy piano in a similar way to this étude. There is much fast unison writing, exploiting the wonderfully weird composite color of the two instruments, and a lot of close dialogue between them as well.
In David’s program note for the piece he relates an unexpected inspiration for the piece’s opening: “The beginning unisons take off on the beginning of a synthesizer solo in the break of a pop song on one of my car CDs. I don’t recall the name of the song.”
#78 UPON REFLECTION
Rakowski classifies Upon Reflection as a slow mirror étude. He also classifies it as yet another one that he himself actually can play. The term “mirror” reflects (sorry) the use of a technique known to musicians as melodic inversion. If one voice moves up by a distance of a major third, the corresponding, “mirroring voice” moves down by the same intervallic distance: a mirror image of the melodic line, so to speak. Melodic inversion applies to contrapuntal voices that move symmetrically in opposite directions by exactly the same interval, and additionally, around some kind of pitch axis or fulcrum. For example, there is a dual axis of symmetry in the first part of the piece, to wit, two dyads (intervals) a tritone apart: G-natural-A-flat and C-sharp-D-natural. The first dyad in the étude is A–natural in the upper middle voice and, in the left hand lower middle voice, F-sharp. A-natural is exactly a half step above A-flat and F-sharp is exactly a half-step below G-natural; A-natural also is a major third below C-sharp and F-sharp is exactly a major third above D-natural. If the mirroring voices pivot by the same intervals in opposite directions, this symmetry will hold until the axis or fulcrum changes. In the middle of this piece the axis of symmetry shifts, that is, instead of two dyads, there are instead two single pitches, also a tritone apart: D and A-flat, and all voices move symmetrically around those. These changes of fulcrum affect the perception of the harmony. At the end of the piece (approximately the last thirty seconds or so) the original axis is restored, which gives a sense of a very brief recapitulation. Now that I’ve said all of that, do yourself a favor and simply listen to this serenely beautiful music.
The pun in the title relates to the pianist’s name — Nathanael May — who had premiered Rakowski’s Gli Uccelli di Bogliasco. “May Day” of course is a universal navigational cry for assistance, deriving from the French phrase of the title, which means “help me!” Originally, May wanted an étude for himself that featured undulating music in the low register, occasionally interrupted by upward rising (“escaping”) arpeggios. Ultimately, instead of “undulating” music, the lower register material wound up being a fast, syncopated figure that tended to descend, following and subsequently alternating with an explosive fortissimo beginning in octaves. The escaping arpeggios change the basic subdivision from sixteenth notes to triplet eighths, giving the impression of a change of tempo where none exists.
#90 SOLID GOLDIE
Goldie is the firstborn daughter of Marilyn Nonken. In 2009, when Goldie was only a few months old, David told Marilyn that she had the right to suggest the premise for a new étude — her immediate response was to ask for a lullaby using Goldie’s initials — G-C-H, or Goldie Celeste Hunka, as the main pitch motive for the piece. (In the German notation system, the letter H is used to signify the note B-natural).
“It occurred to me first,” writes Rakowski, “to build three-bar phrases of equal bar length — one for each note of the motive. And then, my first real “process piece,” ever, kicks in — the motive keeps being repeated in progressively shorter bars until they shrink to just one eighth note each. In the second iteration of that process, a full quote from the Brahms Lullaby, in the key of G-flat, kicks in. For the middle section, I simply repeat the three note motive in perpetual motion sixteenths, with cross accents and bitonal stuff in the other hand.
“Marilyn premiered it in November, 2009, where she noted, ‘this seems to be your only etude that doesn’t go anywhere’. I commented that a) I didn’t agree, and b) why would a lullaby, of all things, want to go somewhere?”
I have attempted to explain the admittedly rather arcane concept of inversional symmetry and mirroring in the note for Upon Reflection. I will leave the last word to the composer.
“This is a fast mirror étude, and also a mirror canon — for most of the piece, the left hand plays the inversion of the right hand, usually one sixteenth note later. The usual fulcrum of reflection is the C# and D of the beginning of the piece, but that fulcrum shifts a few times. Toward the end, the hand relationship shifts, and the right hand follows the left by one sixteenth. The ending gesture calls for the hands to cross by about as much as they can, until the player looks straitjacketed.”
Notes by Hayes Biggs, © 2016.