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how to write a piano quintet

July 8, 2011

Relief. Quintet finished. I sip tea and reflect on notes and meaning.

It’s a haiku. Well not really, because there should be something about nature in it and also it’s laughably boring and solipsistic. But we are a musician after all, and self-reference is a big part of our daily ritual.

It is true: relief, the quintet is complete, in draft, and has been despatched to players for perusal and comment. Did I mention relief already?

Almost every questionnaire and interview I have entertained over the last year has posed a question about writers’ block, and I suppose it is the converse of that perennial fascination we have for ‘where artists get their ideas’. Where do the ideas go when artists are not getting them? Neither is easy to answer. Nor is the question, “What do composers do when it happens?” which, I suspect, is where the real interest lies. This year, although it might appear that the idea fairy has been kind to me, it is actually very much not the case. I don’t blame the fairy. I blame me. However embellished or romanticised the histories are, it is undeniable that Mozart and Beethoven, and a host of others, would simply not have written all they did if they waited until they were happy and well, and most great artists have a great talent for one thing before all others: hard work. Not sure my talent in this area is even in the ball park, but we shuffle along, don’t we? I have to say, this year has been helped along by some wonderful friends, and I am very grateful to them.

Elsewhere, I have said something about my first piano quintet, written in 2005 for my friends in the Flinders Quartet. It was intended for a tour we were to do together but a serious road accident in May 2006 put paid to that plan, and the lovely Caroline Almonte replaced me, on that and several other occasions. The work is a little unusual in its sequence of eight relatively brief movements, ordered so as to follow a day in the life of Erik Satie, from his waking and eating breakfast in the form of an egg and preparing for bed with a final cigar… In a way, I was thinking along the lines of a Graham Greene ‘entertainment’, like Travels with my Aunt: composers often like to write in serious and less serious modes.

The second quintet is a little less flippant. Well, not flippant at all. The piece has been formed from two earlier works, reworked and rearranged. The first movement is based on Dreams, my single-movement piano concerto from 2003, which featured at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. The second is more loosely built on Drought and Night Rain, a tone poem I wrote for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in 2005. Both works, in their different ways, allude to Judith Wright, fast becoming my main musical inspiration, and ironic too, considering her well-known antipathy towards musical settings of her poetry. In Dreams, though, it is really more of a personal response to her poetic world than any ‘setting’ of particular poems, and the opening theme, which pervades the piece in various transformations, was actually suggested years ago when I first began sketches in London. My wife Helen was busy at the time, working as a repetiteur on the Royal Opera House’s ‘Garden Venture’, a scheme to promote newly composed miniature operas, and our friend Jeannie Marsh was staying with us, cramming for a performance of a striking example by the (then) young British composer Luke Stoneham. His interesting use of long melismas and false relations set me thinking, and in some ways, Dreams was what came of it.

Some years passed between the first sketches for Dreams and its premiere in Brussels, and a whole period of my life in Tasmania came and went in the interim. So, looking back, it constitutes quite a journey for me, and I learned much along the way. When I came to write Drought and Night Rain, I had mapped it out as part of a projected symphony, just as Dreams is intended, still, as the first movement of a piano concerto. Anthony Peluso, then AA at the TSO, invited me for a three-year residency and I leapt at the opportunity to wrote a great big symphony. Silly boy. Australian composers do not write symphonies! They write little overture-y bits and 13-minute Australia Council-funded first-half fillers. Obviously, some symphonies do get written, but very few, and if I sound sarcastic, I apologise. It matters not: when the fairy returns, I will try to finish both the concerto and the symphony, which exist in scattered sketches all over the house.

There are some questions about this quintet that will be answered in performance, I imagine. Dreams  was such a breakthrough for me, in its language and its structure, that I consciously borrowed both aspects in writing Drought, not imagining that they would ever meet. Are they too alike, then? I don’t think so. They both begin and end quietly, with rocking, harmonically ambiguous figures and build to crisis-like climaxes. Not only that, but some of the orchestral sonorities, like the appearance of the frogs and crickets right at the end, are difficult to emulate with the restricted resources of a piano quintet, even with the application of frog guiros and a rainstick or two. We shall see. In other ways, there might be advantages. No matter how much I clarified the original score, and how careful the conductor Gilbert Varga was with dynamics, the piano solo part of Dreams does get almost completely swallowed up towards the end of the nightmarish toccata. To my satisfaction, I should add! Somehow, it stands as an emblem of the solo pianist’s role: heroically battling the tide; in the 19th century, conquering; in the 20th, something else.

Who will win in the quintet? Come along and find out.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Leanne Bear permalink
    July 10, 2011 12:59 pm

    This article resonated with me, Ian. I love your ideas! As a Violinist & Composer (and Mother of 3) I know of the struggles, and also of the immense relief, having just completed a string orchestra work for the Helsinki Strings, and even gone to Finland twice for initial rehearsals of both movements. More relief! (And tea. Which, incidentally could be taken as a reference to nature- being made of leaves.) But I am curious:
    How to write a piano sextet?
    I have a commission for 30-40 minutes for string quartet + cb + piano, and am very pressed for time and stamina. When you’ve finished with the fairy, could you kindly send her my way please? Best wishes, Leanne Bear.
    P.S. Also inspiring is your comment on great artists’ talent for hard work. Send the talent-for-hard-work fairy my way too, please!

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