Friday 3 February 2023

24 Preludes for Piano

Below are the liner notes for my 24 Preludes for Piano album, which you can order here.

The music on this album was written between fall 2001 and summer 2014. Yet the inspiration for it started a long time before that. 

Around 1985, when I was sixteen, my girlfriend Danièle, a classical pianist, played me a couple of pieces by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, back stage of our high school's auditorium. I instantly fell in love with them. Several months later, I was with Simon, the bassist from the pop band I played in at the time. We'd gotten back at an ungodly hour from a gig out of town, and crashed at his flat in Hell's Kitchen, New York. A few hours later he had to go to work, and knowing I was interested in Scriabin, left a record for me on the turntable. At some point, unable to properly sleep on the living room floor, I put it on, and drifting in and out of consciousness, listened to Scriabin’s 24 Preludes for piano, written almost exactly 100 years before I would later write mine. I was completely mesmerized, and those pieces became some of the most important music in my life.

The Western musical system has twelve different notes: A, B flat, B, C, C sharp (also called D flat), D, and so on. You can build a piece of music around any of those of notes; the centring of the piece upon that note is called its "key." Each key can have either a "major" or "minor" flavour; roughly speaking, a major key is happier or brighter, and a minor key is sadder or darker. Thus, there are a total of 24 different keys in which to write music.

"Prelude" originally meant a piece written to introduce a longer, more complicated work. The first composer to write a set of 24 preludes was J. S. Bach, 170 years before Scriabin. Celebrating the invention of a keyboard instrument that could be played in all 24 keys, Bach conceived a collection of pieces, one in each key. He wrote fugues, which are complex works following a strict format, and with each one, he paired an introductory prelude. 

Eventually preludes became stand-alone pieces not necessarily used as introductions, and the term came to mean any relatively short, simple piece that doesn’t have to follow a specific formula. A number of composers wrote groups of 24 preludes, one in each key, in the tradition started by Bach. 

A couple of years after discovering Scriabin, I had another life-changing experience. Walking down the street, I found a three-album set, the complete music for solo piano by French composer Maurice Ravel, discarded on the curb. Ravel and Scriabin, both writing at the turn of the 20th century, produced very different sorts of music, which moved me in very similar ways.

There are two things I love about classical music. One is when it achieves a balance of consonance and dissonance. Music that is lovely, yet also with achy, piquant twists. Early in the history of Western classical music, certain "harmonies" (combinations of notes) were considered ugly or even evil, and only the simplest, most easy-to-listen-to harmonies were allowed. Gradually, composers pushed the envelope, using increasingly complex harmonies; Bach was way ahead of his time in this respect. 

By the early 20th century, certain composers brought in so much dissonance that it became impossible to even know what key the music was in; listeners could no longer orient themselves around a single note. Yet music can be written that is both consonant and dissonant. I think there was a moment around 1900 when composers reached an exquisite balance pointusing ample dissonance without losing the key centrebefore they intentionally tipped the scales all the way into "atonality." That point, where everything hangs in the balance, produces music that is sublimely beautiful to me.  

The other thing I love in classical music is its contemplative side. There are certain pieces that just silence me. They are often very simple, slow, and even melancholy. Sometimes they have that pretty-yet-stinging balance; sometimes they are mostly consonant, yet somehow evoke reflection or yearning. They bring me to a deep, still, and tender place of wonder, from which I gaze out at a world that is perfect and magical. This tranquil place is like the courtyard cloistered behind my childhood apartment building, where the city didn’t seem to get in, but the sunlight did. Or the little, tree-surrounded ponds where we summered when I was a kid.

After high school, I spent most of my life playing pop musicwriting songs, touring in bands, and making albums. All the while, I held a secret love for classical, a private thing I didn't share with anyone, and rarely even indulged in on my own.

Then flash forward to 2001. My band The Mommyheads had broken up, I'd moved to Toronto, and was with my new friend Don Kerr. His music studio was on Toronto Island, where just a few minutes from downtown, one feels miles away from any city.  We had no plan but to improvise and create. Sitting at his piano by the window, I could see the gentle waves of Lake Ontario come up to the beach just outside. Slowly, chords and melodies started flowing from my hands, and within a couple hours I had written my first "classical" piece. I called it Prelude for Sand. Amazed that something like the music I'd been holding close to my heart could come to me so easily, and inspired by Scriabin's collection, I set the goal of writing 23 more preludes, one in each key. 

I didn’t push myself to meet that goal within any time frame, and wrote only when inspiration came. I also began fully indulging my interest in classical music. I ordered all of Scriabin's piano works and started listening again to the Ravel set I'd been carrying around since college. I also got into other turn-of-the-century composers who effected me similarlySatie, Debussy, and Griegas well as later ones whose music lived in the same delicate nexus of consonance and dissonance: Copland, Kabalevsky, Shostakovich, Villa-Lobos, Barber, Vaughan Williams, and early Prokofiev.  And because that nexus was achieved (though in a very different way) much earlier by Bach, I delved into him as well.

I would order albums from the library, find a few gemsusually the more meditative, gentler piecesand save them to my computer. I thereby built up a collection of reliable passports to that land of awe and quietness where I wanted to go. While my holy trinity was Scriabin, Ravel, and Bach, all the above-mentioned composers influenced and inspired me. 

Besides Scriabin's preludes, other collections that were important to me are Kabalevsky's 24 preludes for piano, Shastakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues, and Prokofiev’s twenty Fugitive Visions. Each of these is a set of miniatures, little poetic descriptions or snapshots of a wide range of emotions. So my goal for this project was to write short and simple mood-pieces, each with a different, single feeling. They didn’t all turn out that way; some are bigger and more dramatic, which I accepted because my policy was to go with what came. And while they did span a number of moods, they kept returning to a slow, dreamy serenity. 

It would have been nice to have these pieces recorded by a classically trained pianist, yet I wanted to document how I hear them in my head, so I have to accept the technical flaws that came with playing them myself. Prelude in G major, while theoretically playable, was so hard for me that I had to break it into two parts, one played by me and the other (the trill running through the piece) by Heléna Bowkun on a second piano. Maybe some day a concert pianist such as she will perform or record some of my preludes, and I look forward to hearing the finesse and smoothness they could have if played by a truly skilled musician.

The pieces are arranged on the album neither chronologically, nor in a logical pattern based on the keys. As I wrote them, they seemed to fall into a natural order; I would play one prelude, and then always want to hear a certain other one after it. While I think they are good heard in this order, I'd also be pleased if you, the listener, did what I did when first exploring classical musicpick the ones that speak to you, and put them on a playlist or "mixtape," where they can be useful, taking you to a place you want to go. 

Toronto, 2015

For a detailed list of my favourite classical music, see this blog post.

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