Sunken City, Finally

I finally got a recording of my piano concerto Sunken City – by recording it off of Dutch radio via the internet:

First movement: Before (7:43)

Second movement: After (22:19)

The recording is of the premiere in Rotterdam, which had a few more mistakes than the next evening’s concert in Amsterdam, but the spirit of it is quite nice. The ensemble is the Orkest de Volharding, the crackerjack wind and brass ensemble founded by Louis Andriessen in 1972, conducted by the young but impressively expert Finnish conductor Jussi Jaatinen. The soloist is Geoffrey Douglas Madge, an Australian pianist living in Amsterdam since the ’70s. Few I talk to in the U.S. have heard of him, but he long ago recorded the complete Busoni piano music for Philips, and gave the Chicago premiere of Sorabji’s massive Opus Clavicembalisticum in the mid-’80s, so he’s been a big figure on my radar screen for a couple of decades. It was a great honor to have worked with him, and I found him a kindred spirit and a convivial conversationalist. Here’s a photo of him rehearsing just before the premiere (the other half of the ensemble is outside the picture frame):


Of course, I got blasted in the local Amsterdam Picayune by the same critic whom all the Dutch composers hate because he’s blasted them as well. The only stated complaint was that the piece was too long, which is the most superficial kind of comment; I have tried, throughout my critical career, to avoid ever simply calling a piece too long, because that doesn’t mean anything. If Tristan isn’t “too long” at four hours, how can anything shorter be “too long”? What a decent critic would say instead is something about the structure of the piece that makes the overall form unwieldy. Typically such a work will be unclearly articulated, with too much sectional variety to grasp as a large structure. But in this case, the long second movement is a simple alternation of tutti sections and piano solos, ABABA in that respect after a short introduction of piano chords. It is also a chaconne, one of the simplest of forms, interrupted by a jazz section quoting Jelly Roll Morton’s “Dead Man’s Blues,” and returning at the end to the opening chords in a freer order. The chaconne does contain 17 chords, because I needed at the beginning to suggest the seeming eternity of New Orleans victims waiting for help. I have my qualms about the work’s orchestration, transitions, and other details, but there is nothing about it I am more certain about than that it is not too long. (While composing I even found the piece getting too large and compressed some sections.) And no composer in the world knows better than I do exactly what such reviews are worth.

Much more to the point, probably, is that the second movement is rather sad and Romantic, and as one experienced Amsterdammer warned me, “The Dutch critics don’t like sentimentality.” The piece is, I’ll remind you, an homage to and memorial for New Orleans. I’ve already blogged the program notes, so won’t repeat them here. You can download a PDF score here if you want.

I have a didactic point to make about the performance. You will notice that some of the solos are rather jazzed up, with tasteful pitch bends. I did not notate these. They are, generally speaking, exactly what I wanted. The Volharding players, being smart and sensitive musicians, inferred from the nature of the music precisely what would sound appropriate and played it creatively and in the right spirit. I didn’t coach them on that at all – they were already playing it that way when I arrived. So much for the Midtown fallacy that every nuance has to be exactly notated or no one will know how to play your music. Many Pulitzer- and Grauwemeyer-winning composers would say that my score to Sunken City is “undermarked,” and thus “unprofessional” – and yet a European ensemble, who had never heard my music before, divined exactly the degree of looseness that would make me happy, and achieved it with no input from me. How is that possible? Surely I can’t be right in what I’ve been saying for twenty years, that if you write music clearly enough you can trust smart, sensitive performers to play beyond the notation to find the right feel for the music? Or does this performance, perhaps, prove the orchestral hotshots’ mandate about notational exactitude to be the ideological horseshit it’s always been?

With that in mind, enjoy.

UPDATE: Friend John Luther Adams provides a comforting thought: “Your piece isn’t too long. That critic is too short.”


  1. Samuel Vriezen says

    Agreed. “Too long” is the sign of a lazy critic or a dumbass critic or most likely both.
    I haven’t seen any reviews. Was this by any chance Het Parool and Erik Voermans? Het Parool used to be a very respectable newspaper in the country with nationwide circulation up until about the eighties or so, after which some people who understand money matters better than I do decided it had better be transformed into a trivial shitty rag of minor local importance only; Voermans though has been with it for a very long time now.
    KG replies: To tell you the truth, Samuel, it was of so little importance that I didn’t note the name of the paper or the critic.

  2. says

    I love “Sunken City” – worth a lot of tea, mostly that from China, brought to America! How American, how lovely, how profound and beautiful. Should we stop clapping? Or are we asked to clap?
    KG replies: Applause is always welcome, thanks.

  3. Samuel Vriezen says

    I agree it’s of no real importance, but I like gossip about papers and critics. A google search brings up De Volkskrant and Frits van der Waa – a national rather than an Amsterdam paper; still a somewhat less than impressive critical performance, of course. The mere coupling of a short description with an opinion and nothing to link the two – I see that a little too often in music criticism around here. I wonder if it’s our culture or just because there’s so little space for the reviews.
    What we can do, though, is offer a counteropinion. I thought your piece was really enjoyable, and it was nice to see a real piano concerto in a new music concert, complete with cheers for the soloist.

  4. mclaren says

    Too many notes, my dear Gann. Too many notes.
    KG replies: Well, I certainly can’t argue with that.

  5. says

    Kyle, this piece sounds great. Thanks to Alex Ross for directing me here, & thanks so much for putting up mp3 files, otherwise I probably never would have heard it.
    KG replies: Thanks very much. I enjoyed looking through your intriguing web site, too.

  6. Anon I Muss says

    have you heard Gary Noland’s piano music (postludes, etc)?
    I think you might like it.
    There’s something about the irreverent spirit of your first movement that reminds me of him.

  7. mike says

    Hey Kyle-great piece–loved the first movement–like driving down
    Canal street and all the music is coming out of the alleys jazz clubs and brothels–overlapping/truncated pitch sets in an Ives/Babbitt way
    (good thing!)–and the length is a great set up for the tragedy that folllows (very filmic). Love the 2nd movement too all those Jelly Roll harmonies
    smeared with a bit of Sorabji! The orchestration (touchy subject, I know) I thought really made the piece fresh as you stole all those 30’s dance band verticalities and but them in a new context.
    Much prosperity,commissions,
    contracts, and single malts for the New Year. M.
    KG replies: Thanks for it all, Mike, especially the word “filmic,” which I particularly appreciate in that instance.

  8. says

    The first movement has the tastiest and most tasteful use of 5/4 I’ve heard in some time; and beautiful piano writing (and playing) and scoring all around. A work of beauty, God bless you.
    KG replies: Thank you very much.

  9. says

    Wonderful piece. The comment about Dutch critics being prejudiced against “sentimentality” — what, they only like emotionless music? Strange…
    KG replies: I suppose one can be emotive without being sentimental, but perhaps the dividing line is subjective…