Tickling the Postclassic Ivories

Postclassic Radio has been languishing lately, which I regret. But I’ve just put up a couple of major piano works. One is Ralph Shapey’s Fromm Variations, played by Robert Black. Because Shapey landed a position at the University of Chicago, and deeply wanted to be in that orchestra-circuit crowd, he got a reputation as one of the academics, which I consider unfair. Never graduating from college, Shapey taught violin lessons for a living the first half of his career, and hung out in Manhattan with the same abstract expressionist painters as Feldman (one of whom, Vera Klement, he even married). Within his granitic atonal language is a wonderfully sustained sense of imagery, forms that hover in space somewhat like Feldman’s, only thornier. I’m admittedly not crazy about Shapey’s vocal music – he wrote a lot, and his vocal writing is pretty ungrateful – but his instrumental music can be taut, powerful, and yet somehow almost meditative. The Fromm Variations is his finest keyboard work, and soon I’ll treat you to the Seventh String Quartet as well.

Also up is Fog by pianist composer Jessica Krash, a piano dream in which memes from music history bump into each other – including a major third that keeps trying to turn into Schoenberg’s Op. 19, and never does. It’s been awhile since I’ve discovered a new composer so far out of left field as the aptly-named Krash. Plus, Swiss toy-pianist Iris Gerber has been bringing some new repertoire for that instrument to light. I’m uploading Maria De Alvear’s All music is a mandala (2002) and BBAE-Diagonal für Toypiano und Zuspielband nach Composition 2215 by Daniel Ritter.

As to why such a huge proportion of postclassical music is for piano or other keyboard – I’ve pondered this question for a long time. I know why I’ve written so many piano works, which is largely because my music has mostly been championed by pianists – I’ve failed to interest clarinetists and bassoonists, for instance, in solo works I’ve written for those instruments. A certain breed of pianists seems genuinely ravenous for new repertoire. I try to keep plenty of variety, but I could easily let Postclassic Radio devolve into an all-piano-music station.


  1. Peter says

    Perhaps a reason for the difference in attitude between pianists and other instrumentalists is the dead hand of conformism imposed on musicians in western orchestras. When was the last time anyone saw an orchestra allowed to choose their own clothes?

  2. says

    Good choice, Kyle, of the Fromm Variations. If memory serves me correctly, I was at the premiere with Robert Black at Mandel Hall at the U of Chicago in the 80’s. I agree with your assessment of Shapey—while I like some of his music, and perused a lot of his scores at the U of C’s library in my student days, I felt some of it tended to be bombastic and went on too long (unlike Feldman, which is generally “just right”). I also think the “genius” label, with which he seemed to be tagged, hurt him in many ways. However, while he and I disagreed about music in general and he was a pretty difficult personality (I never studied with him, but ran into him at receptions, etc), I still get a kick out of some of his music. His Evocations for piano, violin and percussion is a really nice piece, as is a large part of his cantata Praise. Like Feldman, his notation was pretty thorny, in that he had a lot of nested tuplets, which probably can’t easily be performed perfectly (in other words, like Feldman, he was notating in a way that encouraged rubato).
    If you’re looking for more piano music to fill your great radio program, feel free to download from this link and this one as well. (sorry, but had to give it a try…)

  3. Julian says

    My guess would be that a key tenet of post-minimalism, like minimalism, is self-sustainability. Surely most composers are also pianists – at least to some degree – so what better way to enure your music is heard than to play it yourself?

  4. says

    Julian wrote: …Surely most composers are also pianists – at least to some degree – so what better way to ensure your music is heard than to play it yourself?

    I think that composers also being keyboard players is less true today than at any time in the last 300 years. Electric guitar has been steadily gaining ground, along with non-keyboard electronic (i.e., computers as instruments in their own right). I have a feeling that this will only continue, making for some fundamental shift in how the average composer thinks of, and deals with, musical material.

  5. Richard says

    Kyle, try writing for saxophone, they seem more interested in new music. With regards to performing our own works, some of us are stuck, like me, with playing instruments (in my case trombone/euphonium) that we’re not that interested in writing for!