The title of my four-hand concerto, Concerto dʼavorio, comes from a passage in Virgilʼs Aeneid that I came across via a Borges lecture on, of all things, nightmares (but neither his lecture nor my piece is particularly dark). He mentions that moment in the Aeneid when Aeneas is leaving the realm of the shades after visiting his family past and future. There are two gates through which he can exit to return to the land of the living: one of horn, through which “true dreams” pass to living beings, and one of ivory, through which “false dreams” pass. Even though all he learned in the land of the shades was true, and although he is returning to the “real” world, he exits through the gate of ivory, the “false” one. Virgil doesnʼt explain why, and scholars have pondered it since. Borges suggests that Virgil was implying that our world is not real, but rather an imitation of reality (clearly echoing Platoʼs cave). Thus, imitation became a major theme of my concerto.
I often find inspiration for my works in musical history, and for this piece I explored the history of the keyboard concerto. The keyboard concerto was essentially invented by J. S. Bach, and his first “sketches” for keyboard concertos were early transcriptions for solo keyboard of other composersʼ concertos for violin, flute, oboe, etc. The connection between Borges and Bach struck me, as Bach was using the keyboard to imitate other instruments, rather than as a thing-unto-itself. This further connected me to the specific history of four-hand repertoire, which is vastly weighted toward transcriptions of orchestral and chamber works (I think of that four-hand repertoire as yesterdayʼs equivalent of modern recordings, the manner by which people could enjoy symphonic repertoire at home). Even the earliest four-hand pieces (by Carleton, Byrd, Tomkins, Bull) were imitations of vocal music, or Couperin-esque programmatic works (a battle, in the case of John Bull). The keyboard was always pretending it was something else.
I decided that this concerto would explore some key historical imitations, and that led me to focus on four more “recent” composers who have reinvented the piano, each by making the piano do things it hadnʼt done before, specifically by asking the piano to imitate other things (usually instruments). Each movement of my concerto focuses on one of these composers and his corresponding avenue of reinvention. (The music I have written almost never sounds like any of these composers—they serve as abstract inspirations—and there is no quotation, per se.)
The first movement—This and That—lays out the primary material of the concerto by having each section of the orchestra play characteristic motives: the brasses play little fanfares, the winds slithery chromatic scales, the strings long sustained lines, and the piano imitates them all. The inspiring composer here is Liszt, who via his transcriptions and virtuoso technique turned the piano into an orchestra in its own right.
Trumpets and Drums—the second movement—is scored for only trumpets, trombones, and various drums, along with the solo piano. Bartók is the inspiring composer, who developed his unique style, at least in part, by unleashing the percussive nature of the piano. There are obvious fanfare figures here, too, and imitations by the trombones of the oldest natural trumpets—conch shells—as well as some battle music via signaling figures in the snare drum. This is a scherzo, but also at times a battle scene, like John Bullʼs.
The Voice—the third movement—is scored for only strings and solo piano and focuses on the singing potential of the piano. There is some simple old-style polyphony, but also romantic songs without words, etc. The inspiring composer here is Chopin, and although there isnʼt much bel canto in this movement, specifically, it is the one that most obviously references its inspiring composerʼs style. (I love Charles Rosenʼs writings relating Chopin to all those bel canto composers, particularly Bellini.)
The fourth movement—Machines—is again for the full orchestra accompanying the solo piano, and begins with a minor recap of the first movement. This is the most substantial movement, with lots of motoric rhythms and overt virtuosity, and quick recaps of the other movements, as well. There is a nod to Bernsteinʼs Age of Anxiety at the end, when the orchestral percussion take up mallets and bells and transform the “real” piano into a “false” one, relegating the solo part to an accompaniment (creating a kind of dystopian utopia). However, the inspiring composer for this movement is Ligeti, who, by way of Nancarrow, reinvented the piano once again by accentuating the mechanistic qualities of the instrument—in his etudes and concerto the piano is revealed as a fabulous mechanism, a glorious machine.