The New York Times ran a nice feature today surveying a handful of artists on their favorite five minutes of piano music. (They’ve been doing more pieces like this lately, and fewer reviews—which I suppose is good—they are useful for a broader audience). It’s an impossible question for me to answer, so I decided to narrow it down: what are the most piano-y five minutes of piano music? What takes advantage of the particular qualities of the piano in such a way that it would be unimaginable to play on any other instrument?
The piano is unique in that it contains its own acoustics, as well as the tools to modulate them. A violin or oboe needs a proper concert hall to sound its best, but all a piano needs is its own case. Inside, 200 or so criss-crossed strings vibrate sympathetically, producing ringing stacks of harmonic feedback—a kind of built-in reverb module. A sensitive pianist can control all of this using minute gradations of the sustain pedal.
I ended up choosing Debussy’s enigmatic prélude La terrasse des audiences du claire de lune (or “the other Clair de Lune”), mostly because I’ve had Debussy on the mind lately, having just finished Stephen Walsh’s excellent new biography (thanks to the thoughtful people at Knopf for sending it to me). Otherwise I think my “alternate” would’ve been the Nocturne Op. 62 No. 1 by Chopin, a piece similarly dense with astonishing twists and details.
In other nocturne news: cellist Caitlin Sullivan has released her début album, which is full of new music from friends & colleagues. It includes a recording we made of my 2008 piece Fast Flows the River for cello and Hammond B3 organ. I’m quite pleased with how the recording turned out; producer Dan Bora created exactly the “warm bath” enveloping the cello that I had in mind. You can listen on Bandcamp or the streaming service of your preference.