FACE TO FACE for piano. 2019.
Duration: 27 minutes.
Movements: (1) Encounter, (2) Arcanum, (3) Entaglement (3) Restoration.
Score/part available through PROMETHEAN EDITIONS.
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Drawing its title from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Face to Face for solo piano is the companion piece to an earlier composition of mine, also for solo piano (and also drawing from the same source), called Through a Glass Darkly. The subject of the present composition is transcendence. The music reflects my relentless search for it and the intuitive understanding that has been developed within an environment that constantly militates against it and attempts to delegitimize it. Although I seek spiritual transcendence with unassailable certainty, its mastership has evaded me so far, undoubtedly due to my own continuing spiritual weakness. Just like a lighthouse during the older days of seafering, however, this certainty has kept me from crashing upon the rocky shores of worldliness and allows me to keep on searching elsewhere for answers.
Face to Face is cast in four very different movements representing four different attempts to musically depict what transcendence means and feels like to me.
Encounter, the first movement, is spectral in the sense that its material is derived entirely from the overtone series translated into the tuning of the piano. The music mines mostly the area of the overtone series which in equal temperament is mapped onto a series of major-second intervals and sounds like the undifferentiated whole-tone scale. Groups of notes within this area can act as common tones for modulation between harmonic series whose fundamentals are similarly members of the same whole-tone scale. The result is reminiscent of the music of early 20th Century impressionism, and it feels like sudden bursts of light reminiscent of the triumphant Second Coming in Christian apocalyptic thinking. The real message, however, is not in the splendor of the overtone clusters but in the quiet moments, where the same material becomes a cosmic dance, a slow waltz, with an initially unpredictable beat slowly settling into something rhythmically and melodically recognizable. Despite the magnificent bursts of energy, the deeper meaning of the music is hidden in the quiet parts.
True to its title, Arcanum, the second movement, is the most inscrutable of the four. The five-note melody, D, E, G, A-flat, B, is a tonally ambivalent “all-interval set.” With the note E barely acting as the fundamental, the set implies a minor chord (with the G as the third) but also a major chord (with the G-sharp, the enharmonically translated A-flat of the pitch set, as a major third). Neither mode is clear, however. The convoluted figuration and the fact that the entire movement is heterophonic (a melody superimposed on slight variants of itself and with no chordal accompaniment) do not allow for any solid harmonic gleaming of the melodic material. The unusual material and accompanying piano figurations are borrowed from Arcana, my early song cycle on texts by Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen, more specifically from the poetically and musically inscrutable second song of the cycle, “The Death of the Prince.” The fast rock-like closing material at the end of this movement is also borrowed: from Orbiting Garden, my virtually unplayable compositionfor piano and audio playback dating back to the late 1980s, a few years after Arcana. Put together, the two quotations are meant to musically document the cosmic arcanum of human voluntary self-sacrifice: the “Hanged Man” arcanum in Tarot symbology or the Christ arcanum in Christian mysticism.
Entanglement, the third movement, musically documents a recently emerging awareness in both science and spirituality that time and space may be nothing more than mirages created by our reflective mind, with no real existence outside our mind. Externally, Entanglement might be mistaken by listeners as a style imitation of 19th Century piano writing, particularly of the music of Frederick Chopin. This was not my intention. I see music and the world at large as a “here and now” phenomenon, all elements of which are entangled into a transcendental oneness. In this sense, I am not interested in the externality of Chopin (how Chopin’s music sounds) but in how any individual’s earthly experience, Chopin’s included, can illuminate our own experience of the world and be honestly owned by us. Style imitation requires objectification of the model which you set out to copy, necessarily causing a deeper distancing between artist and model. Resonance, my goal, requires internal rearranging of you as an artist so that you can become indistinguishable from the object of interest, resonate more fully with it and become one with it. Style imitation is centrifugal and causes fragmentation at the very heart of the cosmos, while resonance is centripetal, in the same sense that love is centripetal.
The brevity of Restoration, the fourth movement, belies its significance as the finale of Face to Face. Both attributes, external brevity and internal significance, are consistent with my own understanding of spiritual evolution. I believe that, despite all adverse circumstances, our lives and our attitude towards life are determined by the gift of free will. We set our goals, we chart our course towards accomplishing them and if we fail, we can choose to rise and try again or implode and lose heart. (Being someone who has lost heart many times in my life, this is entirely self-criticism.) The piano music played by the right hand is a manifestation of this “free will.” The right-hemispheric “silent” left hand, however, with the help of the sostenuto (middle) pedal of the piano, captures a few seemingly insignificant notes of the willful right-hand fortissimo statements and, after each of these erratic statements cease, these captured notes sound like quiet triadic chords slowly forming a harmonic progression. The chords of this progression sound incongruous and foreign to the material of the right hand, but they are extrapolated from it (it would have not been possible to highlight them by the sostenuto pedal if this wasn’t so). Like a quiet voice within us that needs to be brought to our attention, these almost inaudible harmonies are inside us and, like the “meek” in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, they shall ultimately inherit the earth. (Oh, yes . . . just in case you do not discern the harmonic progression, it will be spelled out for you at the end of the movement.)
Premiere performance: Date TBA. Konstantine Vallianatos. The Juilliard School, New York, NY, USA.
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