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!