Piano Music, 1999-2009


Jacob Rhodebeck at April in Santa Cruz

Coda: “You Are Not I” [ 3’24” ] 1999 Share

I often feel that something is about to happen, and when I do, I stay perfectly still and let it go ahead. —Paul Bowles’ character Miss Ethel in the story “You Are Not I” [1948].



Most of the time when we sit down at the piano we are not so much playing an instrument, in the usual sense, as interacting with a visual and tactile model of a musical world view. The piano aspires to representations of unbounded musical possibility, in ways that are both distinctive to the instrument, and indifferent to it. Ten years ago, as I set out to compose new music for the instrument, the tensions between the piano’s uniqueness, and its pretenses to a kind of universality, concerned me.

The piano is at first a keyboard, and displays the keyboard’s attractive logic of tonal movement. In C major or A minor, a hierarchy of white and black separates the notes of a scale from their chromatic inflections. Moving through other keys, the shape of the hand is molded by a tonal topography, privileging simple tonal modulations over complex ones.1 A responsive machinery connects the keyboard—an orderly digital interface—to a resonating body. Inside, the strings are parallel, then skewed, replicating without repeating; metal and wood fill a cavern of asymmetry and orthogonality. Piano, soft: a half-hearted finger’s sotto voce might sink toward the very bottom of musical awareness, but still fill an 18th-century concert stage like the smallest organ pipe fills a cathedral. Forte: in the 19th century, the revolutions of the late 1700s slipping into the past, and the revolution of clocks and steam engines under way, the pianist’s full hands and taut hammers somehow remain at the center of a Romantic world. The piano was everything from a soft-touched toy of family parlors, to a hero’s throne before the orchestra. Later, a medium of French symbolism, luminescent and weightless,2 yet heavy and arrogant enough to survive any future: tonality’s disintegration, the drum-driven back beats of swing, and the global electricity of Chicago blues.

“Fors seulement…”, fors seulement condition [ 3’20” ] 2001/4

The term symbiosis…is a metaphor…it does not describe what actually happens between two separate individuals of distinct species. It describes that state of undifferentiation…in which inside and outside are only gradually coming to be sensed as different. —Margaret Mahler


Like any other instrument, the piano and its meanings are conditioned by history and culture; that historical weight is a challenge to any musician aspiring to innovation. But one of its most important features is its featurelessness—we are often urged to forget the piano, and leave its instrumentality unnamed, in the presence of something somehow ‘purely’ musical. Too often universalized and exnominated, the activities of hands on the instrument and the sounds coming from its interior, can inexplicably cease to be of the piano. For me, this disappearance of voice and name makes the piano all the more compelling when regarded as potentially distinctive and historically bounded. So I have tried to rethink its presence in the world around us, hear and feel the instrument as a body, among other bodies, and situate its expressions in our everyday lives.

Read more about writing new music for piano, and some historical contexts that inform these pieces.







John Mark Harris at U.C. San Diego’s Studio A


Plain-clothes Cop [1’54”] 2000

{A word (and a picture) about this piece}



















1. So, for example, chord functions in E major and A major are distributed similarly under a pianist’s hands; those functions will rarely share physical shapes with their counterparts in more remote keys, like F or G.
2. Just as gravity attracts a tonal melody to its tonic, whole-tone scales and other symmetrical note-collections served Debussy and Ravel in descriptions of weightless clouds and soft-edged visions of tombs, cathedrals, and moonlight.









Additional listening is available at the New Music Wiki Project, and at Enfuse.