Composing piano music has been very difficult for me for one main reason: because I studied piano music so intensely for so long, I felt like anything I tried to write for solo piano sounded like something else. Piano music and rock music are the two things that have eluded me in that way. It wasn’t until I taught at Humboldt State University in winter 2007 that I broke that feeling.
I was away from my then-fiancée for five months, which was proving to be more difficult than I thought it would be. I was staying in the basement of a house that had a upright piano in it. So, on an especially lonely night, I started work on my commission from Gloria Cheng – that work turned out to be Piano Sonata No. 1 – “Arcata”. What I realized from that experience is that solo piano is something very personal to me – it’s a quiet love that I can’t fake. Every piece for solo piano that came before or after has needed to be personal for me to really want to write it. This is where the Drive-Thru Etudes began.
When my wife and I were considering having a child, I began thinking back about my childhood to see if I really thought I could be a good father. When I did, I found that there are a number of stories that I would like to tell, but very few of them are long enough to carry a decent arc. Inspired by the piano etudes of David Rakowski, I began experimenting with piano techniques that weren’t traditionally taught. Etudes, like the ones composed by Chopin and Debussy, study common problems like legato thirds, octaves, ornamentation, tremolo, and similar technical problems. I wanted to write etudes about things like playing inside the piano, sympathic vibration, and harmonics; these are some of the weakest weapons in the pianist’s arsenal.
For example, I really wanted to write an etude for sostenuto pedal. After using it extensively while working on the Bartok suites and the sonata, I found it useful in everything from Bach to Shostakovich. While pianists have many thoughts about the una corda pedal and the damper pedal, few really control the sostenuto pedal like the other two. Simultaneously, I remembered going to thrift stores and buying used records for pennies. I grabbed as many as possible (I didn’t care what they were) and listened to them all. One of the many that stuck in my head was titled something close to “Piano Moods”. It was nothing but differing speeds of arpeggios, but because of the number of scratches on the record, the normally monotonous, predictable arpeggios would jump around in odd meters. All of a sudden, that record became interesting to me. So I combined the idea of the scratched record and the sostenuto pedal to make the etude.
Every etude in these five books is based on something very personal in my life, and each book is based on an area in which I lived. Book 1 is about my childhood growing up in the suburban Upland, California. This book is the soundtrack to an adolescent youth’s life of shoplifting, video games, musical growth, employment, teenage “love”, and siblings. My first time away from my parents is captured in Book 2. Arcata is the home of Humboldt State University, the place I spent my studying music (when I wasn’t worried about the home I left, jail, failed relationships, loneliness, increasingly destructive habits, and making a difference). Books 3-5 are still in progress, so the titles and subjects are still tentative.
Book 1 – “Upland, CA”
(live performance by Ryan MacEvoy McCullough)
- Five-Finger Discount (etude on “five-finger” position)
- Button Masher (etude on clusters)
- Scratch Record (etude for sostenuto pedal)
- Door-to-Door (stride piano etude)
- Padua (etude on fluctuating intervals)
- Kalili Humana (etude for thumbs and pinkies only)
Book 2 – “Arcata, CA” – (all titles are songs from bands that I listened to at that time)
- Stargazer (trill etude)
- What Jail Is Like (etude on tight spacing, or what I call “turtling”)
- Fool in the Rain (etude on grace notes and falling thirds)
- So Lonely (etude for left hand alone)
- The Day the World Went Away (etude on repeated notes)
- Dark Globe, a.k.a. Wouldn’t You Miss Me (prolation etude)
In progress (all titles are tentative):
Book 3 – “Santa Cruz, CA”
- Masochist (accent etude)
- Cat Trick (etude on triple polyrhythm)
- Zone Defense (etude on sharing melodies between hands)
- Hermine (harpsichord etude)
- Love Letters Make Good Kindling (etude on thick chords)
- Pancakes or Toast (black key vs. white key etude)
Book 4 – “Los Angeles, CA” is in the very early stages.
Book 5 – “Tarzana, CA” will be the final book of etudes, and it will contain only 3 etudes.