music composition, piano

Escaping the Struggle of the Chord Machine

“The piano is not a chord machine,” I have said to myself and my composition students. I have experienced its effectiveness as a chord machine while accompanying art song, hymns, and indie rock, but I have played too much repertoire by Mozart, Chopin, and Debussy to be content with writing repetitive patterns of blocked or broken chords. My discontent has led me to scrutinize accompanimental patterns in Brahms’ violin sonatas and to record and choose from more than ten versions of myself improvising on a chord progression. Writing for piano has been a struggle for me since my academic path bent toward composition in 2003. For the chamber music draft I finished yesterday, however, I met the challenge without struggle and without many hours sitting at a piano. As I approach my next two instrumental composition projects, both of which also involve piano, I realize that I may have escaped this struggle for this season because of my music-making over the past two years.

I wrote exclusively choral music from Fall 2015 through Spring 2017. Hearing uncivil rhetoric and seeing compassion absent, I found texts I wanted to meditate on and words I wanted others to sing. My affinity for poetry causes me to hear inherent rhythm in words, and sketching musical ideas for lines of lyrics comes easily. After receiving detailed feedback for and revising Lady Liberty’s Request, sketching and completing Village Preacher and Hold Love, Be Light felt almost effortless. On the other hand, I started and restarted an instrumental piece during that time without being able to make progress that satisfied me. I abandoned the project.

Meanwhile, my piano practicing focused on the commitment I made in July 2015 at Berklee: include Cuban music in the rest of my piano-playing career. I added solo piano works by Magaly Ruiz Lastres and Ignacio Cervantes to my repertoire, sharing them at my Vanderbilt University undergraduate reunion, Millersville University, and other venues. I played along with the CD as I worked through half of Rebecca Cline’s Latin Jazz Piano Improvisation. I practiced playing a few bass lines in Ed Uribe’s The Essence of Afro-Cuban Percussion & Drum Set with chords in the cascara rhythm in my other hand, delighted and entranced by the repetition of the rhythmic counterpoint at slow and incrementally faster tempos. During this time, I also prepared to present my Burning Bush Variations at the Music by Women Festival and the Women Composers’ Festival of Hartford.

A transitional opportunity emerged in May 2017: I began setting a text and found I was writing for a solo vocalist instead of a choir. I considered my network of musicians and pitched the idea to sTem, a soprano, clarinet, and piano trio. They welcomed the project, and we have been workshopping the piece via email.

For the piano part, I could imagine how I wanted each section—except the refrain—to sound. I envisioned the colors of pitch register, the shapes of bass lines, and the textures of rhythms as if I were painting a landscape. I treated the piano more melodically, often letting chords emerge as parts of lines rather than drawing lines from the chords. I drafted the majority of the phrases in my staff notebook or in my notation software, and when I later played them at a piano, I merely tinkered with ornamentation. For most sections, I crafted bass lines first, and two moments of the piece present them without without treble parts.

The chord machine does appear intentionally in two sections of the piece. After the introduction, the piano part echoes my three years of intermittently improvising on J. S. Bach’s Prelude in C as the soprano leaps through pitches of chords. In the second section, I wanted to evoke stride piano to accompany dialogue between the voice and the clarinet. sTem asked to improvise in this section, and along with the chord chart for their group improvisation, two later phrases in the piano include an optional transcription of one of two unrecorded improvisations by me.

I started to refer to myself as a composer-pianist about two years ago. I had used “composer, pianist, teacher” because I tended to keep my composition projects and piano performances separate before the January 2015 premiere of Burning Bush Variations. I am presently benefiting from the synergy the hyphen expresses: composing piano music that satisfies me and playing piano music that speaks to me.

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