• Benedict Mason
  • Six Piano Etudes (1988)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)
  • piano
  • 25 min

Programme Note

1. Triad Warfare

This is a fierce toccata built around an equal distribution of major, minor, augmented and diminished triads arranged anti-tonally in waves of varying amplitude over the whole range of the keyboard. Irregular accentuation inspired by certain traditional 2-malet xylophone techniques as well as the possibility to play two successive triads legato between five fingers (by sliding one or more fingers by a black note to a white note) contribute, when the piece is played fast enough, to a suspended hovering dislocation further disrupted by accelerandi and rallentandi.

2. Notes Inegales - Petite Boite a musique en pasacaille

This piece is a passacaglia, the ground of which is a symmetrical series, where some notes are more equal than others. The eponymous performing convention of the Baroque period is here taken to all possible rhythmic and polystylistic extremes with all manner of devices (sometimes even physical ones, e.g. the distance the hands jump, constraints of fingering and other obstacles) to creat the inequality.

At times a rich contrapuntal tension with only two parts in combination or displacement by incompatible fractions (triplet / semiquaver) is set up and notated very precisely. At other moments there are attempts to cheat or defy time (borrowed and stolen time) as something ongoing and irrevocable, both in the notation and in the interpretation / performance.

3. In the Cracks

Using the white notes only, the performer concentrates on what he / she has spent a lifetime trying to avoid, namely to miss the cetnre of the key and to hit two keys at once with one finger. It is a rhapsodic study in the use of the third pedal, wide stretches and abrupt tempo change.

4. Fluctuating Durations and Metrical Punning

This is a study in repeated notes and makes use of a device where one rhythmic cell may change into another over a number of repetitions and sometimes also against a constant. The manner of accomplishing this process is musical (i.e. in the performance) rater than systemic (in the notation and therefore becoming too complex) and also pscho-acoustic (a coup d'oreille where, with a judicious use of accent shift and tempo-change on the part of the performer, the listener may suddenly find him / herself perceiving the rhythm as if from a different view point: it is as if the rhythms jump into a new position when the accent is refocused).

A simple parallel from Lewis Carroll whose game 'doublets' illustrates this point:one word is changed into another via other words, e.g. FOUR-Foul-Fool-Foot-Fort-Fare-Fire-FIVE.

5. Steinweg nach Hamburg

This multi-referential title refers principally to the raison d'etre of this piece in honour of Steinways of Hamburg and the fact that because of the resonance of the harmonics vis-a-vis the length of strings and their accessibilty, this piece has been designed for, and can only be played on, a Steinway Model D full-length concert grand piano. Fixed harmonics on the strings of the lower half of the piano are prepared by nine assistants who retain their finger positions throughout the performance. The harmonics are chosen with ergonomic and microtonal considerations to give a variety of harmonic cross references. The piece proceeds through an alternation of two textures: fast, more mechanical two-part music followed by quasi chorale (sic) chordal music. These two textures merge and change as each successiviely effects the other as the piece progresses.

6. Schenker

Caligraphically notated in the style of Heinrich Schenker's (1868?-1935) Music Analyses, this piece allows for certain freedom of interpretation by the performer in terms of musica ficta, figured bass, ornamentation and the free translation of German terms used by Schenker. Central to the piece is the Schenkerian idea of foreground and backgruond: its as if layer after layer (in the vertical sense) is lifted off during the (linear) progress of the piece and by the end there is almost nothing left. One type of foreground consists of certain highlighted chords that appear at intervals during the piece, and which are repeated at gradually decreasing tempi and pre-recorded on tape to run in tandem with the live piano. The piece is also inspired by Charles Rosen's comments on Beethoven's 'mastery of musica time' in The Classical Style.

Benedict Mason