Thursday, 17 May 2012

‘Small is beautiful…’ in conversation with Michael Parkin

Richard Casey playing Michael Parkin’s Prelude and Fugue No 4
Rika Zayasu’s piano recital on Saturday 2nd June was programmed by composer Michael Parkin who came up with a theme: ‘Small is beautiful’ – reflecting the miniature in contemporary music.

I had a fascinating chat with him about this earlier in the week

Steve Crowther: Michael, can you just give us an idea or outline in your programme thinking?
Michael Parkin: To begin with I just started to assemble pieces I really like and admire – pieces I thought audiences would enjoy. Then I simply waited for the threads and themes to emerge. It soon became apparent that there was common ground and subtle relationships between virtually all my ‘shortlisted’ works; forms from the past, such as variations, passacaglia or fugue…

SC: Surely these are forms from the past, what is their relevance now?
MP: I don’t see them this way. They’re simply techniques and processes – fugue and passacaglia are simply ways of organising counterpoint. They are not rigid structures, they’re plastic and malleable, and as such, relevant to any age.

SC: Are there any other ‘threads?
MP: Yes, there is an insistence on drama, narrative and description; and finally, most of the composers I’ve chosen have taken their inspiration, or at least ‘tapped into’, music from other cultures, traditions and genres – I’m thinking here particularly of Sculthorpe’s Japanese inspired Night Pieces and Weir’s wonderful variations on a Spanish/Arabic folk tune, but this would equally be true of Rzewski’s Give Peace a Chance, or even Part’s reflections on Chant in Fur Alina.

SC: Could you tell us a little more about Rzewski’s Dead Moth Tango? I didn’t realize it existed…
MP: It doesn’t!

SC: Ah.
MP: The idea of pairing composers’ work in each half misfired! My intention was to frame the entire concert with Rzewski – but it turns out that Dead Moth Tango was actually written by William Bolcom.

SC: So where did the confusion spring from?
MP: The piece was featured on to a tribute album to Rzewski by the American pianist Ursula Opens. How or why it was included I have no idea.

SC: So…?
MP: …so a note to all programmers – research thoroughly!

SC: Quite, but why did you still leave it in?
MP: Because Dead Moth Tango is wonderful, and I’ve now discovered the music of Bolcom. One of the joys of programming concerts is that you get to listen to a lot of new music – it’s a delightful antidote to laziness!

SC: What about the Sculthorpe?
MP: The ideology for the Sculthorpe pairing was simple, I just wanted to include as much of this sadly neglected Australian composer as possible.

SC: His music is fantastic…
MP: …and the ‘short frame’, provided by the interval, gave me the perfect opportunity to divide my own Preludes and Fugues into two groupings. I think it’s difficult to listen to (not to mention play!) four demanding works such as these on the trot.

SC: What have you discovered during this process?
MP: If this programming exercise has taught me anything it’s this – the piano miniature is not only alive and well, it’s thriving!

SC: Can you tell us a little bit about the Prelude and Fugues we are going to hear at this recital? Are the influences simply formal ie Bach?
MP: Not at all. As a whole the Prelude and Fugues have allowed me to tap into, and pay debts and homage to all the various ‘musics’ that I’ve listed to over the last 50 years.

SC: Which?
MP: Well, there’s the elegiac keyboard writing of Arvo Part in Prelude to No. 3; Howlin’ Wolf, Blues and Jazz in the Prelude to No. 4; Robert Fripp and King Crimson in Fugue No. 4. I could go on! I’m not sure listeners will spot them (it will be very evident in Prelude No. 4!!), but they’re there nevertheless.

SC: We have a sound file of Richard Casey performing the Prelude and Fugue No 4. Can you describe the Prelude? Was the influence Shostakovich?
MP: The prelude is curious; the material I use is virtually a nursery rhyme tune that is infuriatingly just short of a balanced 4 bar phrase, and ends in an abrupt change of key. By ‘tweaking’ just one note near the end to make the tune more acceptable, you would have to repeat the whole thing 11 times (44 bars!) through every key on the piano to arrive back where you started. Things are never what they seem…

SC: …and the Fugue
MP: The Fugue to No 4 starts with a single melody which constitutes the ‘subject’. What I’ve tried to do is reduce this melody to its essential melodic and harmonic components, so that with each re-entry the melody becomes shorter and more compact, with the result that the ‘counter melodies’ begin to gain in importance.

SC: So you have created an inbuilt drama driving the music forward?
MP: In a way, yes. Shortening the melody (subject) each time produces a ‘stretto’ effect (because the entries arrive quicker), without actually using stretto! The last entry of the melody (subject) in the left hand is only about 4 or 5 notes long, so all we are left with is a sort of ‘halo’ of ambiguous harmonies hovering above it.

I suppose this is a sort of anti-Fugue! Destroy the ‘subject’ and allow ‘counter-subjects’ to emerge.

SC: So this is not the blue-rinsed reliving of old forms but musical revolution?
MP: Behave!

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