The Postclassical Piano List

Like John Cusack’s vinyl-obsessed character in the charming little film High Fidelity, I end up making a lot of lists, and for similar reasons – though my lists tend not to be “top five,” but more like “top hundred, in no particular order.” This week, for instance, a student pianist asked for some guidance in learning about recent piano repertoire, and so naturally with my Scorpio fanaticism I started obsessively pulling together a CD library of postclassical piano music. I’ll be damned if I was going to concoct a list of the approved 20th-century usual suspects: Boulez Third Sonata, Stockhausen Klavierstucke, Carter Night Fantasies, and so on. The official stuff is so ugly. I wanted her to be, not repelled by modern piano music, but seduced into it, and so I started to compile all the attractive pieces, the ones I love listening to over and over and even enjoy playing through.

There’s a hell of a lot of it. But still, it’s an interesting problem. In general, the late 20th/early 21st centuries are not a great era for piano music. A lot of my favorite composers haven’t written any solo piano music at all, and among many who have, their piano music is not their most convincing work. It’s difficult to write for solo, unaltered piano these days, in relentless competition with Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Debussy, Scriabin, et al. There are a few composers who have written for piano frequently, like Feldman, Peter Garland, William Duckworth, Walter Zimmermann, and myself, and, like Chopin, Frederic Rzewski has composed a mountain of piano music and little else. But I also found that an alarming percentage of recent piano works I’m crazy about are forbidding for pianists because of their extreme length. Larry Polansky’s Lonesome Road and Feldman’s Triadic Memories are each 90 minutes, Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes, Rzewski’s The People United, Otte’s The Book of Sounds, and Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano all an hour or more, and Violette’s Seventh Sonata a massive three hours. It’s as though the form of the brief piano piece is way too difficult to do anything distinctive with today, and composers can only do something interesting through scale and form.

Nevertheless, I made a list and I’m burning CDs, and I thought I might as well share the former with you, to suggest to someone out there that a large and very attractive repertoire of postclassical piano music does exist. I included only works that I truly find beautiful, and, since this is a Postclassical list, I left out any works from the European mainstream; no 12-tone music need apply, no matter how superb. Several of the hipper Europeans are included, however. Since the purpose of the list is to offer young pianists repertoire that they could reasonably acquire and play, I omit works for piano and electronics, as well as works for piano in altered tunings (the only ones I would mention are La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano, Riley’s The Harp of New Albion, and Ben Johnston’s Suite for Microtonal Piano). I omit works for prepared piano, since the major ones are all by Cage anyway. No works for Disklavier or player piano. I include timings if I have them handy, partly to show you what a factor length has become.

In short, if I were going to curate a massive festival of Postclassical piano music, all live-performed and without special technology, this (in no particular order) is what I would start with:

The Postclassical Piano Repertoire List:

John Cage: In a Landscape

- Dream

- The Seasons

- Etudes Australes (three hours)

- One5

Morton Feldman: Piano (26′)

- Triadic Memories (80′-90′)

- Palais de Mari (30′)

- For Bunita Marcus (72′)

- loads of brief early works, of course

Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated (60′)

- De Profundis (30′)

- Four North American Ballads

- Fantasia

- Sonata

- Mayn Yingele

- Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier

- The Road (eight hours)

Terry Riley: The Heaven Ladder, Book 7

- The Walrus in Memoriam

Charlemagne Palestine: Strumming Music (hours)

- One + Two + Three Fifths in the Rhythm Three Against Two for Bösendorfer Piano (24′)

- Sliding Fifths (15′)

Giacinto Scelsi: Un Adieu (5′)

- Suite No. 8, Bot-Ba (26′)

- Suite No. 9 (18′)

- Suite No. 10 (34′)

- plus, presumably, all the other suites I don’t know yet

Christian Wolff: Preludes

- Bread and Roses (9′)

- Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida (13′)

Elodie Lauten: Variations on the Orange Cycle (24′)

- Adamantine Sonata

- Sonata Ordinaire

Peter Garland: Walk in Beauty (18′)

- Jornada del Muerto (28′)

- The Days Run Away (18′)

- Bright Angel Hermetic Bird (15′)

- A Song (22′)

- Two Persian Miniatures (4′)

- Nostalgia of the Southern Cross (4′)

John Adams: Phrygian Gates (26′)

- China Gates (5′)

William Duckworth: Time Curve Preludes (60′)

- Imaginary Dances (17′)

- Hand Dance

Giancarlo Cardini: Piano Sonata No. 1 (21′)

- Lento Trascolorare dal Verde al Rosso in un Tralco di Foglie Autunnali (10′)

- Una Notte d’Inverno (6′)

- Una Sera d’Autunno

Walter Zimmermann: Beginner’s Mind (65′)

- Wöstenwanderung (19′)

- Abgeschiedenheit (28′)

- Barn Snail Dance (2′)

- When I’m 84 (3′)

Claude Vivier: Pianoforte (9′)

- Shiraz (13′)

Bernadette Speach: When It Rains, Lleuve

- Angels in the Snow

Annea Lockwood: Red Mesa

- Ear-Walking Woman

Cornelius Cardew: Thaelmann Variations

- The Croppy Boy

- Father Murphy

- Four Principles on Ireland

Beth Anderson: Net Work (9′)

- Manos Inquietas

- Quilt Music

- Belgian Tango

- September Swale

- Rhode Island Swale

- Wallonian Waltz

Art Jarvinen: The Meaning of the Treat (9′)

- Serious Immobilities (24 hours, but a one-hour version exists)

Clarence Barlow: Cogluotobusisletmesi (30′)

- Des Nus Descendants Une Echelle

- Clair de l’Une Fois

- Pandora

- Bachanal (1′)

Tom Johnson: An Hour for Piano (60 minutes on the dot)

- (and lots of austere piano pieces based on mathematical patterns)

Michael Jon Fink: Two Pieces for Piano Solo (4′)

- Piano Solo (5′)

Dennis Johnson: November (113′)

Maria de Alvear: En amor duro (50′)

Larry Polansky: Lonesome Road: The Crawford Variations (90′)

Harold Budd: Children on the Hill (20′)

“Blue” Gene Tyranny: Nocturne with and without Memory (11′)

Judith Sainte Croix: Kachina Piano Preludes

Donald Crockett: Pilgrimage (9′)

Paul Dresher: Blue Diamonds (18′)

Peter Gena: John Henry

Frank Abbinanti: Jenin

Dennis Bathory-Kitsz: Tirkiinistra

Cornelis de Bondt: Grand Hotel (37′)

Alvin Curran: For Cornelius

Jo Kondo: Sight Rhythmics

Lois Vierk: To Stare Astonished at the Sea

Wes York: Music for Strings

Mamoru Fujieda: Patterns of Plants

Robert Ashley: Van Cao’s Meditation

Hans Otte: The Book of Sounds (72′)

Phil Winsor: Dulcimer Dream (6′)

Andrew Violette: Piano Sonata No. 7 (three hours)

Somei Satoh: A Gate into the Stars (8′)

Stefan Wolpe: Form

- Form IV: Broken Sequences

Andrew Schulze: Dreams and Lullabies (22′)

Kyle Gann: Time Does Not Exist (15′)

- Private Dances (25′)

- Desert Sonata (20′)

- The Question Answer’d (4′)

- The Mercy of the Storm (12′)

In addition, here are some pieces I’ve heard, loved, and would have included on the CDs if I had recordings of them:

Stephen Scott: Departures

John Luther Adams: Among Red Mountains

Kirk Nurock: Four Imaginings

Bunita Marcus: Julia

Ingram Marshall: Authentic Presence

Dennis Kam: The Presocratics

Sidney Corbett: The Celestial Potato Fields

That’s many dozens of hours’ worth of good, varied, challenging but entirely accessible piano music. You may nudge me if I’ve forgotten something, or let me know if there’s something great I haven’t heard – but remember, this is a postclassical list, so examples in the modernist tradition will be dismissed with a contemptuous rolling of the eyes.

A million thanks, by the way, to Sarah Cahill, Lois Svard, Gloria Cheng, Aki Takahashi, Ursula Oppens, Kathleen Supove, Vicki Ray, Hildegard Kleeb, Marianne Schroeder, Joshua Pierce, Ian Pace, Herbert Henck, and all the other pianists who champion postclassical music, and whose recordings and performances made this list possible. You’re saints.

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