A few years ago when I was studying composition with Bob Priest, he asked me if I would arrange Debussy’s piano prelude, Hommage à Samuel Pickwick Esquire for string trio. I was hesitant because I thought it would be difficult to convey the effects of big booming piano chords and the sustain pedal using just three string instruments. But I am always up for a challenge, so I went ahead and worked up this arrangement. I hope I have managed to replicate Debussy’s blend of English solidity and French delicacy in this piece.
Comment Rejected: “Evolve or Die”
A few years ago, a burgeoning group of Portland dancers started flocking to Wednesday night Milongas (Argentine tango dance events), tangoing to Led Zeppelin and Gogol Bordello. But the purist record collectors who once dominated and DJ’d Portland’s Argentine tango scene had trouble accepting anything newer than Astor Piazzolla. Around that time, a thread on the Argentine tango board advocated for scratchy recordings on vinyl of 1930s era composers like Carlos Gardel, castigating those who could not connect with a bygone era. My comment to them, “Evolve or Die,” was rejected with a smiley face and an apologetic reply by the moderator, who was trying to prevent a flame war.
Enter Igor Stravinsky with his Tango (1940), penned in Hollywood, smack in the middle of Argentine tango’s Golden Age of dance music (1935 – 1955). It stuck to the martial 4/4 rhythm, but strayed angularly away from triadic harmonies. The Charles Ives-like crunchy seconds and stacked chords reject the sentimental harmonies of traditional Argentine tango music. The obsessive choke-chain around the note “D,” held in check at different points in the right hand, combined with bombastic dynamics and manipulative counterpoint between each chord, bring a sadistic smile to my face.
Then along came Antonio Celaya. In 2013, the Oakland, CA composer wrote a Milonga, a fast tango on a habanera rhythm. (Milonga means both an Argentine tango dance event and a fast tango dance.) Catching the lightness of heart with chords as crunchy as Stravinsky’s, Celaya imbued his tango, Chongos Morongos, with vulnerability, getting lost in the fun, re-starting almost apologetically, over and over. Perhaps I love both these tangos because they are not sentimental. They are full of emotion and dark passion.
Sonnet Quartet (2016) for oboe and string trio was written for Catherine Lee and Free Marz Trio. The music has been supported by a grant from the Ontario Arts Council and was partially composed during a residency at the Banff Centre. The score follows the sonnet form, after a fashion.
Nightingales (chez Messiaen) (2016) combines recordings of nightingales with piano music based on birdsong transcriptions.
My Messiaen montage includes one organ piece that continues throughout, a choral piece that comes and goes, and a few other works, small-scale and large, that are excerpted, including Turangalila. The Ondes Martinot is in the mix, as it should be.
Smile for string trio was written for Messiaen’s 100th birthday & premiered by the Free Marz String Trio in 2008. This short homage briefly quotes an early Messiaen song on a poem by his mother, Cecile Sauvage, entitled Le Sourire (“my mouth wants to smile & my smile trembles”).
Le Sourire is a direct arrangement of Messiaen’s song for alto flute, cello & piano to be premiered on All Classical Portland’s Club Mod show.
Rechant IV is my string trio adaptation of the 4th of Messiaen’s Cinq Rechants for 12 solo voices. I’ve taken a few liberties with octaves & chord voicings but my new version strives to remain faithful to the basic spirit & contrasting textures of the original.
I often sketch out the beginning of a composition multiple times before I find material that I develop into a complete version. In this case, the commission was for a an extremely short piece (one minute!), therefore I ended up writing four complete Full Fathom Fives before I found what I was looking for, thus the title, Full Fathom 5.5.
The piece is composed of several independent layers of color, and I was no doubt influenced in my thought process by my good friend Bob Priest, the organizer of March Music Moderne, who adores numerology and alliteration. The flute line begins with three Fs and represents Ariel’s voice, while the piano and cello respectively explore the contrasting colors of the dark blue sea and the yellow sand of the island. This is unlike any other commission that I have received, and I look forward to hearing the five Full Fathom Fives side by side.
Sea-Changed evokes ocean depths such as those just off the dramatic headlands of the Oregon coast, and trudging footsteps along the beach such as might be left by a survivor of the shipwreck that opens Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. It also pays homage to the Debussy prelude, The Sunken Cathedral, a lifelong favorite of mine. As always at the coast, a few gulls complain nearby.
The prelude to Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde — indeed, the entire opera — is one of the supreme landmarks of European art music. I was intrigued and honored when Bob Priest asked me about arranging it for piano quartet. As a pianist, I’d always considered the sad shortcomings of available solo transcriptions unavoidable, but with this ensemble I was able to capture everything that moves me in this sublime stretch of music. I hope I haven’t left out any of your favorite bits.