Concerto, concerto, concerto – Piano concerto!

Busy with the piano concerto. And big band charts. And playing some too! Plus the American Jazz Composers Orchestra is off and running! It’s fun to see what it’s like to be a musician without the teaching aspect. I am finding, though, that I miss teaching a bit. But it can wait until January…

The concerto is taking shape, especially large-structure wise. At first, I was going for three movements. That might have worked musically, but it just wasn’t feeling complete extra-musically. As I briefly outlined in the first post about the concerto, I commissioned three fantastic poets to write poems knowing that I was going to use them for inspiration for the concerto. They came back with three fantastic poems, each completely different. Each movement is going to be based on one of the poems. However, to tie this all together I really need a fourth movement in the concerto. So I’m now looking at 4 movements total. The fourth movement will be inspired by “the muse,” which really ties us all together as artists regardless of the specific discipline in which we work.

It’s really something to live with a poem for months at a time, reading it every day. Much different than reading unfamiliar poetry on a regular basis. I have actually had the three poems from Katharine Rauk, Timothy Young, and Thomas Smith for more than a year, and the layers of meaning that begin to appear after that amount of time is staggering with these poets. I’ve arranged the poems in order to correspond with the movements and musical material I’ve come up with based on the poetry: Katharine Rauk’s Dowsing, Thomas Smith’s Reverence, and Timothy Young’s The Wind and Woods on the Far Eighty. It’s really amazing – the musical material that came to me based on studying the poetry corresponds with a very nice progression of character and style often associated with a multi-movement work. An interesting question to ponder is if a poet would group the poems in the same order as I would as a musician. Perhaps my grouping order is rooted in the fact that my concept of organization has been so influenced by music that it was more of a self-fulfilling prophecy to group them that way.

In the next post I’ll post my dealings with Rauk’s poem and how her ideas are making their way into my work.

Piano Concerto No. 1!

I recently learned that I was awarded a Faculty Development Leave (used to be called a “sabbatical”) for fall 2012. At my university (UT Arlington) we are not automatically granted one every 8 years or so – we have to apply with a specific project in mind and hope it gets chosen. Luckily my proposal was one of the projects chosen this year. My project is to write a 30-minute piano concerto with orchestra, containing a piano part that involves some improvisation. It will NOT be a “jazz” piano concerto, rather a straight-up piano concerto in which the piano part involves some improvisation. I have never been a fan of jazz superimposed into the classical idiom – it always seems contrived.

I’m going to attempt to journal here each day I’m working on the project. Since I’ve never written anything even close to this long or involved, it will be a completely new experience each day. I invite your comments and interaction, too!

My overall idea for the project is to build upon a concept that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time, whether I was aware of it or not. I have always been interested in the interactions between various art forms: painting and poetry, music and dance, etc. My constant inspiration outside music has been poetry; my big band album, Pulse, contains a 15-minute suite, Mississippi Ecstasy, with narration and poetry by Timothy Young. I also have a group that performs once and a while, The Jazz Ecstatic, with poet, saxophone, piano, bass, and drums. My latest album, The Heart of the Geyser, takes its title from a line in a poem by Romanian poet Marin Sorescu.

Recently I came across a book in my university’s library (stack browsing is fun!) called Musical Ekphrasis: Composers Responding to Poetry and Painting (find on Amazon here) by Siglind Bruhn. I am still making my way through the book – it’s a pretty dense philosophy book but full of great insights and analysis of past works. I am trying to directly create that “ekphrasis” in this project. I’ve commissioned three poets to write poems knowing that I am going to use those poems as inspiration for this new composition. Afterwards, each poet will write a new poem based on hearing the music. Kind of like circular artsy telephone! The poets are absolutely amazing: Timothy Young, Thomas Smith, and Katharine Rauk; I invite you to get your hands on all of their works that you can.

My first task is to survey as much of the history of piano concertos as I can through score study and listening. I don’t know if it’s because as I march on in life I become more critical of my own composing, or what, but I feel that if I’m going to write a piano concerto I need to have a deep understanding of the historical and recent span of that huge genre. I have stacks of piano concerto scores in my office, and I’m pretty sure the university’s interlibrary loan staff grumbles my name every time I submit 10 requests to get scores and recordings from other libraries.

One of my primary goals with this informal, monumental survey is to get as much of a grasp as I can of orchestration and pacing in a concerto setting. How much does the piano play alone? How much does the orchestra act as an equal to the piano? When do the piano/orchestra battles happen? These are some of the questions I’m trying to wrap my head around. As I make my way through the literature, I’m finding that the Naxos Music Library Online helps immensely. Hopefully you live near a library that subscribes to their streaming resource, as you can listen to something like over 325,000 albums! So far my favorite discovery is the three piano concertos by the great Finnish composer Rautavaara!

As I continue my work, I’m going to keep posting here. Hope you’ll join me on this journey!