Mirage: Reflections and Visions
Preface to the Score
Mirage: Reflections and Visions is a suite of eight piano pieces composed from 1985 through 1989 and revised and notated in 2012.(#1) It is the second group of piano works which I wrote for solo concerts I performed during the 1980’s and 1990’s. The first group, composed between 1979 and 1984 and revised and notated in 2011, is collected under the title of Recital. It includes Solo, Fantasy, Arabesque 2, Song for You, Insieme, Toccata, Parting Thoughts and Arabesque 1. A third suite of piano works, Parts Unknown, composed from 1990 to 1991 and to be revised and notated in 2016, marked the end of this compositional period which also included Ballad, a work for piano and orchestra written in 1982.
A few words regarding the stylistic origins of this music are in order. As a composer-pianist, I composed and performed many of my own piano works from student days onwards. By the 1970’s, however, composing and performing were distinctly separate activities for me. After winning the Kranichsteiner Musikpreis, Darmstadt, Germany, in 1969, I undertook a solo career devoted to the performance of twentieth century piano music – including works by Stockhausen, Boulez, Messiaen, Ives, Cage, Carter, etc. As a composer, however, I worked daily in my home tape studio composing a series of musique concrète works for stereo tape. While these two activities, concertizing as a pianist and creating music with tape recorders, complemented each other, they were also mutually exclusive and the gap between them increasingly concerned me. I missed the composer-pianist’s direct communication with the audience and, as a result in 1979, I abandoned the tape studio (but not the esthetic lessons nor the compositional procedures I had learned from this experience) (#2) and returned to composing for the piano. My concert repertoire changed accordingly and during the 80’s and 90’s I now programmed piano music by Corea, Jarrett, Gershwin, Morton, Joplin, etc. along with my own new works.
The triadic musical language used in this piano music was significantly different from both my earlier, more dissonant instrumental compositions and my performing repertoire of the 70’s. This change reflected my conviction - which had gradually matured during the 70’s while experimenting with a seemingly infinite variety of “found” sounds in the tape studio (#3) - that absolutely any sound, when placed in the proper context, can be used for the purpose of musical expression. The expressivity and originality is provided by the context, not the sound in itself, and, if it is used in an emotionally convincing manner and if the composer has something to say which an audience wishes to hear, “even” a triad can well serve the purpose. Furthermore, my tape studio work, which from 1973 to 1978 had exclusively referenced preexistent musical compositions as “found objects,” (#4) placed me in daily contact with traditional triadic harmony as viewed from a totally different compositional perspective. Using musique concrète procedures to manipulate these materials, I found that one could create a new vocabulary of sounds which maintained a clear association with the original source while projecting a contemporary sense of experience – a sort of “extended family” of relationships which provided a rich source of unique musical imagery. (#5) Taken all together, these observations ultimately brought me to a new appreciation of the structural potential still present in traditional musical materials and, when I returned to composing for the piano, I chose common practice tonality as my starting point. This vocabulary, the basis of Western musical styles and vernaculars for centuries, offered immediate access to musical languages and imagery of every degree of sophistication and at the same time provided a norm of reference which permitted the listener to instinctively discern and appreciate subtle differences between the familiar and the new, the anticipated and the unexpected, the systematic and the non-systematic use of the language. The “found object” - to be referenced and modified in any way that served a musical purpose – had become the language itself.
I set off, consequently, to compose piano works which responded to my particular sense of rhythm, continuity, imagery and form as developed in my musique concrète works of the ‘70’s, (#6) but which now placed melody and counterpoint at the forefront of my compositional thought. The three sets of piano works described above were the result.
Mirage: Reflections and Visions, as the second of the three groups, marks the halfway point in the development of this style. Lasting half an hour, it contains eight descriptive pieces (musical “visions”) which are introduced and/or concluded by sections of a more reflective, recitative-like nature. These brief “reflections” were intended to suggest a narrator’s personal recollections and musings, while the longer descriptive sections depict the narrator’s “visions.” The “reflections” function structurally somewhat like the Promenades between movements in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or, perhaps more to the point, like the recurring solo violin interludes in Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherezade by which Scheherezade expresses her personal comments to her husband, the Sultan. In the case of Mirage, however, the narrator’s material, with the exception of one brief cadential phrase, is completely through-composed, integrated with the “visions” and rather than recounting tales of adventure to the Sultan, the narrator-pianist is sharing personal recollections and sensations with the listener (#7) – memories of times, places and events gone by, of rippling water, swirling mist and moments when clouds told stories and dreams came true. The reflections have a nostalgic tone, but the visions are intended as evocations and celebrations of those wonder-filled sensations which, as the title suggests, may - or may not - correspond to the reality of that which once existed.
Six of Mirage’s movements, 2. River, 3. Epiphany, 4. Clouds, 6. Aria, 7. Valley Mist, 8. Voyage, have programmatic titles which metaphorically indicate the general character of the music. The remaining two movements, 1. A Distant Time, 5. A Distant Place, which share musical material and divide the suite in two equal groups of four movements each, are the structural pillars during which the narrator prepares the scene for each group (as it were: “Once upon a time”, “Once upon a place”).
Footnotes regarding interpretation and performance techniques are provided at the end of movements. There is also a detailed explanation of the notation used in order to specify a rhythmic delivery which, true to its roots as discussed above, is rarely uniform in either meter or tempo.
Richard Trythall, Rome, December 2012
(#1) Although the scores of Mirage were originally notated in the 1980’s, only recently, with the advent of increasingly sophisticated computer notation programs, has it become possible to notate this music adequately.
(#2) Bolero for Four Percussionists (completed in 1979) served as a vital transition piece between my tape studio work and these piano compositions. Constructed in the tape studio in much the same way I had developed earlier musique concrète pieces, Bolero illustrates - in purely instrumental terms - the multi-leveled rhythmic and flexible metrical world to which the tape studio had accustomed me. This rhythmic sense plays a significant role in my piano works from the 1980’s on and can easily be seen by a glance at the score of Mirage.
(#4) These included the Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti in “Suite” for harpsichord and tape, the St. Anthony Chorale in “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” for woodwind quintet and tape and Jerry Lee Lewis’s performance of Whole Lotta’ Shakin’ Goin’ On in “Omaggio a Jerry Lee Lewis.”
(#5)In these works I literally cut the original music into fragments of recorded sound on tape, developed the fragments with musique concrète procedures and then rebuilt new musical structures with both the new and the old material. I considered this to be an electronic extension of the traditional motivic development technique.
(#6) The experience in the tape studio sharpened my appreciation of seamless, dream-like continuities, of the casual perfections of improvisation, of seemingly “effortless” thought and unpremeditated organic growth, of irregular stone walls over brick walls and of giving shape to the unexpected. It also influenced my approach to the piano. There are several passages in Mirage which are reminiscent of electronic effects – in color, density and spacing - and there is often a distinct separation - in dynamic level, rhythmic figuration and, most importantly, metrical alignment - between the contrapuntal lines, as though these lines were occupying independent musical planes or, in tape studio terms, separate tracks or channels. At the basis of my compositions in both mediums - notwithstanding the fundamental differences between them - there was, however, the same root motivation: storytelling through sound.
(#7) Traditionally the solo piano repertoire often assumes a confidential intimacy between the pianist and the audience – an intimacy which is literally generated by - and figuratively perceived as - “touching.” In performance, piano music is inevitably imbued with our awareness of the performer’s contact with the keyboard – of the pianist’s sense of touch. This “language” of touch, in the best of cases, reinforces the musical language and, particularly in the music which employs a wide variety of color and articulation, can “speak” directly to the listener with disarming candor.
MIRAGE YouTube video (performance of complete work, 2012)