Leaves of Grass (12 preludes for piano) (2005-09)

63 min.
Published by Fennica Gehrman

Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then, I contradict myself.
I am large, I contain multitudes.

For me, as a 21st-century composer, there is perhaps no instrument simultaneously as seductive and terrifying as the piano. Seductive, in the sonic and expressive potential I believe it still possesses even after centuries of development and experimentation; and terrifying because of the wealth of great music composed for it as part of that same, ongoing period. In a modern context, it is a deeply ungrateful instrument to compose for. The evenness of sound throughout its range creates great difficulty for a composer such as myself who relies as heavily on color, texture, gesture and atmosphere as on structural, motivic or harmonic cohesion to hold music together and maintain interest for listeners.

And yet I have felt impelled to take up the challenge of piano music repeatedly, partly out of an innate stubbornness, but also proceeding from a deep-seated certainty that the instrument has secrets yet uncovered, hidden soundworlds and shades of expression that can only be found by going back to it again and again, slowly finding one’s own place in the piano’s history. It is perhaps in light of this last that I decided to embark on a 12-part cycle of pieces, the very form of which carries a huge weight of historical implications. Leaves of Grass is an attempt to take on some of the weight of piano music history and come out alive at the other end. Although the variety of stylistic implications arising from the instrument’s rich past caused me no end of anguish in the early stages of composition, I finally found comfort in the words of Walt Whitman himself, which now head this score. It is this all-embracing, New World sentiment that attracted me to Whitman’s poetry as a musical subject in the first place, the abandon with which style, form, rhythm and rhyme were invoked, incorporated, reworked and discarded that helped me chart a course through the world of piano music.

Whitman’s combination of forceful originality and far-reaching appropriation of styles and structures, freely adapted to suit patterns of his own devising, also led to the decision to incorporate into my pieces many iconic pianistic gestures and figurations of the recent and not-so-recent past. One of the aspects of piano music history that endlessly confounds me is the seeming tendency of composers, consciously or not, to cordon off a particular idea once it had been conspicuously deployed in a piece. Thus, a gesture becomes proprietary, “taken”, as it were, the creative property of one individual, often found in a single well-known piece, and thereafter left unexplored by others. (How would the Classical piano sonata have developed had composers left to Domenico Alberti’s use alone the accompanimental figure that bears his name, and which ultimately was his only lasting contribution to the repertoire?)

As I hold the adaptation, extension and refreshing of such “received” ideas to be one of the primary tasks of composers in the 21st century, I made a point of consciously basing some of the pieces in Leaves of Grass, or sections within them, on familiar figurations from the work of other composers I have played and admired. Some of these appropriations – the heroic arpeggios in Song of the universal, reminiscent of Chopin’s “Ocean” étude op. 25, no. 12, seen through a pop-minimalist prism, or the mechanistic patterns of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase in Thou orb aloft full-dazzling, or the clangorous white-key chords in Sparkles from the wheel familiar from Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie– are quite obvious, though I did make sure to add a personal twist. Others, like Lingering last drops – which deploys a slowed-down, resonant, diatonic version of Webern’s fractured pointillism – are more oblique in their references. More often than not, though, it was simply the sound of another composer’s music, their way of making the piano speak, their way of voicing a chord, that provided the historical context. Indeed, sound itself, more than physical technique or compositional idiom, forms the core of my approach to the piano.

Walt Whitman, a discovery of my early twenties after a mostly French education to that point, is a towering figure in American, and indeed English-language literature. The first decision I made in the selection of poems from Whitman’s vast output as background material for these preludes was to spotlight some of his less famous utterances. Much of the Whitman appropriated for concert music tends to focus on his more positive or epic words, and although some pieces in Leaves of Grass stray toward this more familiar side of his voice, the poet that dominates this set is the Whitman of bleak moments of all-too-human frailty, pithy ruminations on nature and the nature of existence, and simple consolations.

I should point out that, although the pieces are based on Whitman’s verses, they are not specifically programmatic in nature, but rather personal distillations of the atmosphere of each poem. Although some hew quite closely to the poetry that gave rise to them, more often than not it was a few words, the rhythm of a phrase, or a single, iconic image that proved to be the catalyst for each piece. There is little in the way of a conscious narrative arc spanning the whole series, despite the linking of the second and third books, which is perhaps more of a reflection of their being composed simultaneously than a real attempt at formal integration. However, certain ideas – chords, characteristic rhythmic patterns, melodic fragments – do return in quasi-cyclical fashion from piece to piece. Also, the three books of preludes are ordered to produce both a sense of variety and dramatic flow within each group of four, as well as a broad, three-part structure from beginning to end – though I can imagine other sequences working just as well, and the performer is encouraged to mix the preludes quite freely. Book I focuses largely on dark drama and quiet reflection while Book II offers generally brighter, more extrovert music, and perhaps a little humor. Book III, with its last two pieces forming a “double” ending, closes the cycle on both a valedictory and a contemplative note.

Though the poetry is not essential in following the progress of the cycle, it may be helpful to provide some clues as to the genesis of each piece and its relation to the accompanying poem, which is sometimes distant. In Tears, the piano rhapsodically portrays a storm both physical and psychological, as a nameless protagonist (the poet himself?), sits alone on a darkened beach, weeping. As in the poem, the cry of “Tears! Tears! Tears!” opens and closes the movement. Lingering last drops is its polar opposite, a quiet, consoling elegy in which the final drops of a rain shower are slowed down to the point where each one becomes a singular, exquisite event. Sparkles from the Wheel follows the hypnotic dance of sparks from a grindstone, alternating wildly with glimpses of the busy surroundings and building toward a climax that gives voice to “the loud, proud, restive bass of the streets.” The final piece of Book I, Twilight, is a gently swinging blues accompanying the poet’s brief, haiku-like meditation on oblivion.

Book II opens with The voice of the rain, a delicate, slightly off-kilter dance of scattered notes, in which the ghost of a waltz occasionally flits by. Other ghosts make themselves known as well. It is followed by On the beach at night, a more agitated depiction of a man consoling his bereaved child as dark waves of “burial clouds” obscure the sky. The final cadence alludes to the name, unspoken in the poem, of the thing “more immortal even than the stars”. A noiseless patient spider is a more literal portrayal of Whitman’s poetic image, with quietly spun strands of music unfurling across the keyboard, connecting triadic “spheres” in reverberant space. The closing toccata-like piece, Thou orb aloft full-dazzling, is an invocation to the sun to cast its light on all creation and prepare the way into life’s night. Bright, minimalist patterns are hammered out in dense, rhythmic flurries of notes, creating a halo of pedal resonance that takes on a life of its own around the keyboard texture.

Book III is perhaps the most quizzical, beginning with Out of the rolling ocean, a pensive ballad for Whitman’s ode to the singularity of human companionship, which proceeds directly from the cloud of reverberation that ends Book II. The second piece, Apparitions, is there and gone in a flash, sphinx-like, leaving only more questions, much like the corresponding poem. Song of the universal, a rather splashy tribute to both the Romantic piano paraphrase and progressive rock, is painted on the broadest and perhaps most clearly Romantic canvas of the cycle, juxtaposing radically different materials, rhythms and textures in an attempt to give voice to Whitman’s multitudes. A clear midnight again brings back the poet’s meditative side under a quiet, distant star field, spiraling off into infinity.

Leaves of Grass is dedicated to my friend Risto-Matti Marin, who spearheaded the commissioning of the cycle. I am quite sure that when he casually asked me for some new music for a summer concert, he had no idea of what my overactive and overambitious imagination would unleash on him. I am deeply grateful to him for lending his tremendous musicianship to my work, and for his support as I progressed through the composition process.