|listen||01/29/2016 performance (on bandcamp);
03/04/2016 performance (on bandcamp)
|performance history||01/29/2016 by ASM at the National Opera Center (ASM Has Too Many Hands);
03/04/2016 by ASM at ShapeShifter Lab (Hands Hands Hands Hands)
The title of this piece changed from “sick sense of humor” when it was just the opening melody, to “etude” when I assumed that it would never be finished. I had sketches of three parts: the first eight measures, measures 13 and 14, and measures 25 through 30; I couldn’t decide on the A section melody’s rhythm, and I didn’t know what to do about the left hand (resolve the chord or leave the last note as an augmented fifth). Once it was finally completed, I chose the title to reflect both the tempo and the melancholy spirit.
My intention was to write a solo piano piece, but it languished for years. When we talked at ASM about doing an all-piano show, I thought I could possibly turn it into a duet? It couldn’t hurt.
I started this probably a decade ago. It was a few disconnected measures that went nowhere. It sat on my music stand untouched. I couldn’t get past the way it just sat on one harmonic progression. And it was supposed to be a solo piano piece. Ultimately, I had my breakthrough with it while sitting at a solitary piano in a distant corner of a conference hall in Orlando FL, where I was spending a week for work. I went back to that piano three straight nights for about two hours each time. The piece was literally finished/notated on a plane trip back home. Start-to-finish, the piece probably took me under 10 hours... spread over about as many years.- ASM program notes, 01/29/2016
There are only two places where both pianos play simultaneously, and but for those, this would be a solo piece (since the two pianos alternate). However, the memory I had of the premiere’s performance space was that there was a stage, and one piano would be on the stage and another piano would (effectively) be on the floor, almost in the audience. So this was written so that the extremely quiet and delicate parts are by the piano further away, and the play-as-loud-as-you-can parts are by the piano that should be right next to you. (It turns out that my recollection of the space was completely incorrect, and there was no stage at all – just two pianos on the floor.)
This is a very difficult piece to play. Dexterity-wise, it’s simple. Harmonically, it’s simple (very tonic and dominant, etc). But volume and touch are tricky: the pianissimos should be barely audible, and the quadruple fortes should be driven through the base of the keyboard bed from the player’s shoulders, all the while (for both volume extremes) being uncomfortably slow, with the quarter note at 48. This is supposed to feel like a meditation that is somewhat agonizing, and the amount of air between notes is as important as the volume, so that the accented dissonant tones linger.
The tempo is also deceptive. I could not come up with a good way to notate this, so I put it in the performance notes:
In general, the piece is rubato, but in a specific way:
The main melody of the first section (mm 1 through 10, mm 15 through 22) should be played such that each measure slows a bit at its end (and returns to tempo at the beginning of the next measure). A bit like breathing. Measures 11-12 should be played without that effect.
In the quadruple-forte sections for Piano 2 (mm 13 through 14, mm 25 through 30), the tempo can – and probably should – expand a little bit, but they shouldn’t have that rubato effect either. What’s important in these sections is to emphasize the melody – which is the non-static interior notes of each chord. In terms of dynamics, the ridiculous quadruple-forte is intended to be played as strongly as possible (solidly, all the way to the bottom of the keys, but not in a staccato, stabbing way).
In the second section of the piece, at rehearsal letter B (m 31), the tempo can speed up slightly so the section moves a bit more, but it needn’t have the rubato effect that plagues the melody of the first section. This should be the same through rehearsal letter C (in both pianos), until the re-statement beginning at rehearsal letter D.
I’m not a pedal snob – you’re welcome to pedal freely throughout. My only ask is that the quadruple-forte sections not become giant blurs of sound; so maybe don’t worry about pedaling in those sections.
A precise recording of this probably relies on specific instruments and specific performance spaces. Nevertheless, it was played quite nicely by Rene Denis and Theresa Rosas at both performances, on different pianos in different spaces.