If they throw stones upon the roof
While you practice arpeggios,
It is because they carry down the stairs
A body in rags.
Be seated at the piano.
Wallace Stevens: “Mozart, 1935”
I ask many young pianists to play un-measured preludes by French composers Louis Couperin, Gaspard Le Roux, or Rameau. These are written pieces in which pitches are specified but rhythm is not. I offer no instruction, no advice.
Louis Couperin: Prelude
You might think, more than three centuries after this music was notated, musicians couldn’t play it. But 300 years turns out to be a short time!
This music might be described as something between composition and improvisation. The “open form” music of the mid-20th century reminds me of early keyboarding. Maurice Ohana wrote preludes in the 20th century that include unmeasured writing. In the multiple pathways of his Third Sonata, Pierre Boulez recalls Frescobaldi. And then, there’s Earle Brown‘s Twenty-Five Pages…
As I hear young musicians grapple with the questions of the unmeasured preludes, what consistently surprises me is not how far away we are from 300-year-old music, but how close to it. We remain in (or have returned to) a musical practice remarkably similar to the 1700s. We are part of this extended moment in music.
The 17th- or 18th-century keyboardist was well aware of “style brisé.” The necessity or taste for arpeggiating or breaking notes that may be written as block chords (in lute and keyboard music), is constantly represented in the unmeasured preludes. That breaking, that strumming, is a sound that pervades (keyboard) music:
Philip Glass: Mad Rush
Arpeggios, strumming, Orpheus, the human/heroic parsing of a block of sound-information.