As a pianist, nothing thrills me more than performing as the guest soloist with orchestra. It’s elating to listen to the huge swells and subtle nuances of sound that meld with those I produce from the piano. My fellow instrumentalists and I blend together; we breathe together. Even if we speak different languages, we communicate clearly in the dialogue of music.
Since I most enjoy playing the repertoire for solo piano and orchestra, I have long felt compelled to create a piece in this genre. Approximately two years ago, I began composing my first piano concerto, Raisons d’Être. I titled the piece and named each movement to provide the listener with a starting point from which to launch his or her thoughts and impressions. The words are vague enough, I hope, to allow for individual experience. The title, translating from the commonly used French phrase meaning “Reasons to Be,” seemed fitting for a work that marks almost half a century in my life. Raisons d’Être is autobiographical: a musical expression of my personal sensibilities, emotions, experiences. Utilizing the most profound language I know, I describe some of my reasons for being.
Composing has made me more aware and appreciative of music’s place in history—its impact on society and how, in a myriad of ways, “new music” of each period reflects all that has come before. It’s fascinating to me that musical forms from hundreds of years ago continue to survive, still proving malleable enough to serve the needs of contemporary composers. Concerto Form is one of those timeless templates that allows for great freedom within an organic framework. Raisons d’Être is composed in the traditional three movements of Concerto Form with a fast-slow-fast pacing. The architectural and harmonic schemes of each movement, however, stray from tradition. While “tipping a hat” to the formal structure, the work possesses its own distinct, contemporary form and harmonic progression.
With diverse musical influences in my life, I’ve found that, inevitably, my compositional voice reflects a wide array of styles. Important influences in my musical development have been the master composers of western classical music such as Bach, Chopin, Ravel, and Prokofiev, along with 20th-century American composers like Gershwin and Bernstein. In this work, I attempt to unify some of those influences. I strive to create a bridge between the harmonies and rhythms found in traditional classical music and those of more “popular” music like film scores, Broadway tunes, and jazz. I began with musical conceptions away from the piano, made notated sketches, and then brought them to the piano. As more and more material evolved, themes became inextricably intertwined. For me, this was both a deliberate and an unconscious process. If the “light bulb went off” in my head, I would carefully craft and manipulate ideas into the musical phrases I wanted; yet, sometimes an idea had a life of its own. When left to develop intuitively rather than with concerted intellectualization, musical lines frequently followed their own, perhaps more natural, paths.
Once the notation was complete came the hard part: learning to play my own composition! I approached the work as I would any other—making interpretive decisions that would best project the music and intentions of “the composer.” Notes are merely specks on paper until they are brought to life in the wondrous phenomenon of sound; it’s the performer’s task to bring voice and meaning to those notes. Since the only road map is what the composer provides on the written page, the interpretation of a given work makes it truly unique. Listen to different performances of the same piece and the artistic variance is apparent in many ways: tempo, dynamics, structural conception, coloration, balances, voicings. Add to those elements the performer’s individual style, technique, tone quality, and personality—and that’s what makes music.