Friday, July 16, 2010

The Big Easy.

Easy is hard.

I'm not sure how many things I am known for as a composer, but I'm sure at least some of them have names. Wickid had is probably one of the more common ones (at least in the upper right hand corner of the country), and complex, and intricate, and sometimes even funny. Perhaps in another blog post I'll try to say more about why hard is easy and easy is hard for me, but that will require the kind of thought and reflection not normally available to me on a beautiful summer's day.

Today is a beautiful summer's day.

The great composers didn't seem to have much of a problem dialing it down. Easy -- or relatively easy -- pieces by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and (swoon) Bartók abound. The musical argument in their easy pieces is not, however, simple, as this example from Bartók, this from Beethoven, this one from Bach will attest. Note particularly in the Bach that the performer is a very young child.

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to write easy pieces that children can play and maybe not outgrow?

This leads me to a point about why composers ought to be able to, and want to, write easy music -- especially, to write easy music that is not dumbed down to fit some guidelines drafted by a few people with Masters degrees in education sitting in a windowless room (oops. Where did that come from?) A good composer should be able -- at least occasionally -- to craft a good, engaging, and taut musical argument that doesn't require superhuman effort either of the performer or of the listener. As students develop their technique, they should be given good music, not just edu-music. This way they can also develop an appreciation for progressively more complex musical construction, and for the deeper emotion that comes from it -- while also finding deeper meaning in the easy pieces.

It's hard to get emotional about a piece specifically designed to incorporate the pinky.

It isn't easy writing good easy stuff, though. And, in limited doses, I relish the challenge.

The first time I was ever asked to write something for young performers was by Jim Goldsworthy, way back when I taught at Stanford. He wanted me to write pieces that his students at the Nueva Learning Center, aged 5 to 7, could play. He loaned me copies of his students' method books, and had them all fill out surveys about what sports they liked, and what was their favorite music.

When I got the materials, my reaction was typical: wtf?

The average length of the pieces Jim's students had learned was 8 measures, and the pieces were written on giant grand staves with really big notes. Not often did both hands play together. Not ever did either hand play as many as two notes at once.

I had to make my brain bigger to get through this challenge (there was an analog service for this at the time, but now it's all done on the internet). The a-ha! was when I discovered that in one of the method books there were recital pieces in which students played duets with their teacher -- a bigass grand staff with a single teeny tiny staff below it. The lower staff was a part for the teacher to play as an accompaniment -- usually adding richness (and bass!) to the piano texture.

Thus, my collection of pieces was a collection of duets notated thusly. Each piece was 12 to 16 measures long, and was named after a student. Usually I used something the student had indicated as "favorite music" in the student's eponymous piece. So, for instance, "Casey's Waltz", if I am remembering correctly, responded to Casey's listing of The Nutcracker Suite as his favorite music by using the opening Nutcracker melody as a waltz melody. Other pieces were written similarly.

I recall arriving at the night of the premieres, and the students treated me like a rock star -- taking their cues from Jim, of course. And each performance was flawless. Now that I think about it, the students who played the premieres that night are now in their very late 20's. I don't know if any of them still play piano, or if they remember their Rakowski premieres. But that night was certainly memorable. And maybe, just maybe, they remember the day they premiered new pieces by a living composer.

And this leads me to reveal an incontrovertible fact: I'm old.

About seven years ago, Jim came back for more -- this time for piano four hands pieces for students ages 11-13 whom he taught in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. It was a similar experience, flawlessly performed. And this time I simply titled the pieces with numbers and invited the students and the audience to make up their own names for the pieces.

Last summer, the Music Teachers Association of California worked with Gene Caprioglio at Peters to commission me for five or six minutes of intermediate-level music for piano four hands. I was told the performers would be 11 to 13 years old, and could play Bach inventions and simple Beethoven and Mozart pieces. What do I know from Intermediate? But I was certainly glad that I wasn't quoted any edu-composers as models. I worked with Cathy O'Connor on the specs, and turned in my pieces in mid-July last year. I breathed a sigh of relief when she told me the difficulty level was exactly right; she followed up with a list of eight or nine editing errors I'd made.

Besides writing the pieces, I was also contracted to appear at the MTAC convention and coach various performers who were to premiere them. This happened over the most recent Independence Day weekend at the Airport Marriott in Los Angeles. So to L.A. flew I, mulled about a bit, scarfed many a Buffalo wing, and did my duty, which was a lot of fun. Peters had produced some very beautiful scores (for purchase, of course), and I spent a small eternity autographing them. The performers ranged in age from 9 to 16; they got together and autographed one of the scores and gave it me.

I only bring this up now because I have discovered that the parents of one of players in the duos filmed a performance and posted it on YouTube. And now the reader of this blog can determine if I was successful in writing a not-dumb piece -- or if I am a blowhard. Or both. The performance is by Sam Yang and Andrea Tam. And to cross all the i's and dot the t's, the piece is called Étude-Fantasies, Edition Peters 68307, copyright © by C.F. Peters Corporation. And yes, that is I making a cameo at the end, while correctly utilizing the predicate nominative.

There is a corollary. And it has to do with my no-longer-ever-expanding collection of piano études. At least ninety percent of the études are wickid had, and I can't come close to performing them myself. Besides being a failed trombonist, I am a mediocre pianist. But I do like to be able to get in on the act on occasion, so I created another (sigh) rule: one étude in each book of ten must be easy enough for me to play. Don't believe me? Here's the list, with YouTube links as appropriate.

Book #2: The Third, Man
Book #3: Roll Your Own
Book #4: Chorale Fantasy
Book #6: Eight Misbehavin'
Book #7: Rick's Mood
Book #8: Upon Reflection
Book #9: Berceuse
Book #10: Quietude

So there.

There has been motion towards compiling a separate Peters edition of the "easy" études. If that happens, I will either let you know or not let you know.

Meanwhile, I'll be starting a new piece shortly. It's going to be wickid had.