Piano Concerto



instrumentation: solo piano and mixed chamber ensemble in three groups: contrabass/E-flat clarinet, bassoon, tenor/sopranino saxophone, trombone; pedal steel guitar (detuned, based on a Nashville E9 copedent), prepared harp, percussion, live electronics; F contrabass Paetzold/alto/sopranino recorder, violoncello, contrabass
date: 2023
duration: 24’00
details: 60 pages, including performance instructions; A3 portrait, full colour

Programme Note

When I’ve told people over the last few years that I’m writing a piano concerto—and, even more so, a piano concerto called “Piano Concerto”—it has generated some quizzical looks. There is certainly something anachronistic, something antiquated about the title, and perhaps also about a compositional model in which title, genre, and form are so intertwined and interchangeable. But, as has been the case with some of my other works—most notably my two string quartets—this piece aims to confront those historical models and precedents head-on in an effort to force myself to consider what those models mean for me, now. It is, in effect, a piece ‘about’ the piano concerto, reimagining and reconfiguring some of its fundamental materials, forms, and principles.

Although the title likely conjures images of the concerti of the Romantic era (virtuosic (and probably triumphant) soloist, plus a large orchestra playing a primarily accompanimental, supporting role) and all of its concomitant concert rituals, in many ways this piece has more in common with the earliest conceptions of the concerto from the Baroque era, with a much more flexible set of relationships between soloist and ensemble, as well as a wider, more networked collection of soloistic roles across an assemblage of small chamber ensembles.

The work is scored for solo piano and three interdependent groups, each with a fairly idiosyncratic lineup: contrabass clarinet (doubling E-flat clarinet), bassoon (occasionally with its reed removed), tenor saxophone (doubling sopranino saxophone), and trombone; pedal steel guitar (heavily detuned, but still with roots in the traditional Nashville E9 tuning common to much country & western music), extensively prepared harp (33 of the instrument’s 47 strings are modified using various moveable/removable implements, including hair clips, honey dippers, tuning forks, erasers, BluTack, cardboard, and a collection of bespoke 3D-printed circular ‘couplers’ that slide between pairs of strings), percussion, and live electronics; and contrabass Paetzold recorder (doubling alto and sopranino recorders, each often disassembled in various ways), cello, and double bass (both of which, as well, are often prepared with various clips/clamps and further 3D-printed couplers).

One of the key organizing principles for the piece—and it’s an exceedingly simple but crucial one—is that, at any point, any instrument across the ensemble can play the role of ‘solo’ or ‘accompaniment’. These roles are constantly in flux from phrase to phrase, sometimes resulting in little nested clusters of soloists within or across the groups, sometimes clear solo-plus-accompaniment groupings within one of the smaller chamber ensembles, sometimes large collections of instruments all coming together in a supportive accompanimental role. (In other words, it takes the concertino/ripieno divisions of the Baroque concerto grosso but destabilizes the roles, allowing any instrument to play either role at any time.) And the roles are generally transitional, and often overlap, such that an individual instrument, including the pianist, might be playing multiple roles simultaneously. Much of the material of the piece, then, emerges from the constantly shifting pairings between these unusual instrumental groups, their distinctive textural and registral characteristics, and their potential linkages and resonances with the more limited textural and timbral attributes of the piano.

The formal design isn’t the only nod to history. More than any work I’ve made in 20 years, pitch—and even more so harmony—is central to the work’s identity. With only a few small exceptions, I’ve eschewed the extended tablature notations that have largely defined my practice since 2004. This is, of course, a direct result of the instrumentation. The piano is decidedly chromatic; the harp decidedly diatonic; the pedal steel guitar decidedly triadic (though admittedly the harp’s preparations and the guitar’s detuning muddy the waters quite a bit). My work has always tried to take the physical, mechanical reality of an instrument as a starting point, and in this case this has meant a renewed focus on pitch relations, and even a reconceptualization of consonance, dissonance, and voice-leading, but really it’s the triad that sits behind every sound in the piece. Those triads are often stacked and distorted and otherwise masked in various ways, but they’re there, more or less consistently across the work. The approach has been highly unsystematic and largely intuitive, emerging out of a method I’ve been working with for the last five years or so in which behaviors, functions, characters, tendencies, energies, etc. are the primary musical materials (rather than, say, notes, rhythms, articulation, dynamics, etc.). In other words, the material is the nature of the relationships between things, rather than the things themselves, and that, for me, is a perfect explanation of the ideal function of harmony, which is really never about ‘chords’ but instead about relational hierarchies, weights, movements, tendencies, and gravitational pull—it’s about syntax, not about vocabulary. In this work, all material filters through this prism of harmony, radiating out from the large-scale, long-range, chordal voice-leading of the piano solo through the distinctively twisted, distorted, destabilized worlds of the three ensemble groups spread across the stage.

The work was commissioned by ELISION, funded by the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation.

ELISION (Alex Waite, piano; Aaron Cassidy, conductor). New Music Days, Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Australia. 20 April 2023. (Radio broadcast, ABC Classic FM, May 12, 2023.)