Sunday, July 20, 2014

My first recording session

My good friend Jonas Pettersson, a composer and incredible musician who was also my first music instructor, allowed me to record some piano pieces in his apartment where he has artist's piano and excellent equipment.  In addition, he wanted to show me some of the basics of how a recording studio operates.

I have about 10ish pieces floating around in my memory at this point, and I played 5 of them with between one and a few takes each over a period of an hour.  I was astonished at what a difference the piano and equipment makes to the quality of sound.  Here are the 5 pieces over an 11 minute track.

Prelude in C Major, Dmitri Shostakovich
Prelude and Fugue in G Major, J.S. Bach (Well-Tempered Clavier Volume 2)
Prelude in E Major, J.S. Bach (Well-Tempered Clavier Volume 2)
Prelude in A Major, Dmitri Shostakovich
Prelude Op. 10 No.4, Alexander Scriabin

I no longer feel bad at all about my sound on inferior pianos, and actually I can more clearly see the flaws in my playing on a piano like this and know I can do a far better job.  I just need to focus on polishing a piece, play on this kind of setup more often, and a little more technique to handle tricky areas is always a necessity and something I know just takes time.

I'm convinced the chief difficulty in producing a good tone is the disconnect between the sound you are trying to create and what you actually create.  If an inferior piano, or a flub of your technique, or both, disconnect you from the sound you are creating, then you lose the musical sense of the piece and it's difficult to recover.  On the other hand, if you get on a roll with your technique, and the barriers between what you are trying to create and what's happening are removed, all of a sudden you can really make beautiful music.  With unpolished pieces, not enough technique, and inferior pianos, that disconnection is almost impossible to avoid in any attempted interpretation, except by incredible luck.

First Piano Composition

I was at my tutor desk on a Monday during this Summer of 2014, and no students came that day.  I had walked to school that morning (4 miles) and before the library opened, I thought I would try to just sketch a piano piece from scratch.  I had made a few other minor attempts to compose in the past, but this felt like my first genuine attempt to conceive something completely original and completely in my mind, and sketch it on staff paper.

I have grown a love of drawing music by hand on staff paper.  I've always been fond of the idea of being able to take staff music anywhere and compose things in my mind, then sketch them.  This piece would be the attempted fulfillment of that dream.

The main work began at the tutor desk.  In about an hour I was finished.  I went to the piano afterwards, and I was excited to hear that not only was it beautiful and interesting, but it was more or less exactly how I imagined it and wanted it to sound.  All I did was add fingering, detail markings (articulations, dynamics, etc.) and add an ending.

I recorded the piece on my digital piano but I much prefer the sonority of even the inferior grands at my school.  Here is the sketch:

And here is a digital recording of the piece that doesn't quite capture what I want, but is good enough:

The piece was a bit more of an exercise in composition and creativity rather than something guaranteed to please the ears.  Not that I don't think it sounds pleasant and interesting of course!  In case there are interested readers, I will describe my thought process for composing it.

Because you have to start somewhere, I picked a harmony out of the blue as the first molecule.  In my mind imagined a chord, and it turned out to be a dominant 7 chord with the 9th added.  I decided upon a basic structure of repeating chords in the right hand with a simple moving bass line underneath.  This kind of sonority is very much inspired by the music I am listening to at the moment, especially Dmitri Shostakovich's book of 24 Preludes and Fugues.  I decided to begin with a thin texture, and then fill out the chord on beats 3 and 4 to create variety and interest.  I decided the piece would begin 5 to 1, as pieces often do - it just sounds good.  As the piece continued I knew I needed a new idea.  I'm not sure why I thought of a resolving suspension in the upper register (9 to 8), except that it occurred to me and I knew it would sound beautiful.  The next few bars were simply preserving symmetry and unity - a thinning of the texture and a 7-8 suspension.

I decided my next goal would be to modulate, and I was struck by the idea of modulating down a whole-step.  In order to do this, I wanted to start with the IV chord in the key of D (G) which is the dominant in the key of C.  I wanted to follow a more unusual path though and drew upon inspiration from my first music instructor, composer, and good friend Jonas Pettersson.  I thought of all the common tones between the two scales and realized I could preserve an element of unity from the beginning of the piece (the dominant 7th with the 9th added) - the only tone that needed to change was an F# to an F natural.  This change is smooth, and yet sudden enough to be surprising.  The next element, a descending step-wise in the upper register, is an extension of what came before and something that I imagined would just sound lovely.  Again, the next few bars are simply symmetrical to preserve unity - I feel like that by now the ear would crave something more and it can certainly be improved.  The idea for the final cadence was that the hands would trade the notes D and C, and the last chord would be in the key between the two - C# Major.  That for me was just a random clever idea I had.  I don't remember ever seeing that or hearing about it before - it just seemed kind of cool and I think it worked out well.

Anyway, thanks for reading and/or listening!