Decoding the composition
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In 2002 I was commissioned to write this Piano Quintet for the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, for Dan Poynton and the New Zealand String Quartet.

Every time I write for the violin I get all the repertoire out, scores, recordings, everything…I’m ready to do a whole survey so I can get right into the world of the violin. But I can never get past the unaccompanied works by Bach. Just because I get so fixated on the pieces…and it’s the same with the cello suites. So the first movement actually comes out of the great Chaconne in D minor. And I’m obsessed with the whole of it, the beauty of it. Then I also had a concept of going against the expected. The idea was that the piano is often doing all the drive and harmonic work and the strings get all the beautiful and lyrical stuff. So I gave the piano a kind of rhythmic looseness over a minimalist grid. The piano has this very rhapsodic feeling to it, explosive as well, while unfortunately the strings get a bit of a workout at the gym.

The second movement contains one of the most conceptually specific things I’ve ever done with a piece of music. I transcribed a piece of improvisation by the Greek violinist Stathis Koukoularis, who is one of the top violinists in Greek folk music. If you listen to this movement what’s really happening is that this very beautiful emotive evocation of Greek transcription is placed in the world of avant guard contemporary Western Art music. There are these two things going on in this movement. And for me the movement is a big question, can these two things coexist? And if you bring them together, how does it feel? If you follow it through to the end, where the piano just sits on those chords and there’s just this space, it’s a statement of resignation. I didn’t believe I could find a way of integrating these things. So the avant guard modernist thing had run it’s course, and you are left with a very melancholic nostalgia.

The third movement is a philosophical coda to the rest of the piece, especially the second. You have these arpeggios in the piano, and they start quite dissonant, from the bottom to the top, but the just the top keeps going over and over again, so you start with dissonance but then just through sustaining it becomes consonance…I guess it could be symbolic of many things…a kind of ‘let the world live at peace” idea. I wrote this movement about the time our daughter was born. And it was that kind of beautiful child thing about it. The future is a bright orb of optimism. It really was something that came from the middle of my life experience at the time.  Also some moments of inspiration coming from Ravel’s string and piano sonorities and as I remember, I was listening to a lot of Arvo Part, and it’s like a million miles from Part’s energy, but it was kind of influenced by his emotional aesthetic a bit…the purity of mode and everything around it staying the same.

As a musician you come across music all the time that you fall madly in love with and effects you in such a profound way. In Western art music you can find scores because of its notated tradition. But if you go to other kinds of music, from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, you can’t find those resources. So the only way you can understand what’s going on is by transcribing music out. and then by studying them truly, intensely. And it gives you a sense of the very elastic melodic writing, embellishment of the melodic writing and rhythmic variation that is at its heart.  It’s always about variation and colour, and the palette, like what is your palette of timbral colour or your palette of embellishment around a musical gesture.  The thing about all that transcription, and the stuff I do now, is what it does to your ears. Your ability to hear what’s going on, like tuning, tempo fluctuations, ornaments, rhythmic precision and elasticity… all those sorts of things.  One  really develop an ear for that stuff.


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Piano Quintet (piano and string quartet)

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Project Details

Piano Quintet (piano and string quartet)

for Piano & String Quartet

Commissioner: NZ International Festival of the Arts

Instrumentation: Piano, Violin 1, Violin 2, Viola *Cello

Premiered by Dan Poynton (pf) and the NZ String Quartet, on March 14, 2000 in Wellington, New Zealand

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Programme Note

The Piano Quintet was written during the millennial changeover. It is inspired by and reflective of four composers by whom I have been influenced: Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, Jack Body and Johann Sebastian Bach. There is a fifth element of inspiration functioning here also; the collective ‘composer’ made up of a great many unknown musicians who live in the folk music traditions of the Greek Islands. This island music has always moved me in both its simplicity and refinement. The second movement of this piece is based on a transcription I made of a recorded improvisation by the brilliant Greek violinist Stathis Koukoularis.

While no music I’ve written has been programmatic, or had a literal narrative, I have come to realise that it is impossible to exclude what is immediately happening in one’s personal life from the final complex of ideas and emotions that make up a new piece of music. This autobiographical aspect of composition is nowhere more apparent to me than in this work. An example of how this manifests itself: some three or four minutes into the first movement, the second violin and viola burst out in melody. Prior to this moment I had spent almost an entire week failing to find a way forward from the previous bars. My family (three generations in the house at this point) took control and absolved me from all other responsibilities. Relieved of a great number of other pressures, I immediately found a way forward in the music, and the sense of liberation and sudden release is clearly audible in the second violin and viola as they sing out.

The third movement is an expression of the wonder and luminous joy I experience when looking at our beautiful daughter, Zoe, who came in to the world as I was working on this piece. The Piano Quintet is dedicated to Jack Body.