interview: scott dunn

Scott Dunn journeys to the outer limits of 20th century piano repertoire and performs two west coast premieres. He discusses his program in this interview.

Q. Noctuary was originally written for a one act ballet. How does it retain its full identity as a solo piano piece?

A. Originally, Richard Rodney Bennett was commissioned to write Noctuary for the English National Ballet but it was never performed. It has only been performed as a concert piece. The idea of ballet music as concert music is not new. Some of the most famous pieces of 20th century symphonic literature were written for ballets, most notably The Rite of Spring. If a piece is musically cogent, it will stand on its own, and this piece is musically cogent. In formal terms, it is a theme and variations. Unlike the classical theme and variations, the compositional technique in Noctuary evolves during the course of the piece. The early variations are similar to the musical language of Joplin and they evolve through styles similar to Schumann, Ravel, Bartok, Schoenberg and finally, wild serial language at the end. The piece is kind of a reversed biography of Sir Richard himself. He was Pierre Boulez’s first student and started his career as a young British composer, writing very complex symphonic music in the 50′s and 60′s, and whose Second Symphony was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and premiered by Leonard Bernstein. In addition to his intense interest and early training in serial technique, Bennett has always also had an incredible interest in jazz and classic American popular song. As he’s matured, his interest in serialism and the avant garde has given way somewhat to this passion for jazz.

Q. Why did you couple Bennett’s Noctuary and Chopin’s Nocturne in B major together on your program?

A. After the exhausting psychological journey of the Bennett piece, I thought it would be lovely to have something incredibly lyrical and restful – like this Chopin nocturne. Also, the Chopin and Bennett make a nice pair as these pieces represent to me two different ways of musically evoking nighttime. I would call Bennett’s approach subjective and Chopin’s approach more objective or descriptive. Bennett takes the listener in the night in a subjective freely-associative way, whereas Chopin, I think, invites the listener to experience nighttime in a more physically descriptive way. The Nocturne in B major is one of my favorite pieces. It has a beautiful section at the end where the tune comes back in trills – in just the way a bel canto singing star of Chopin’s time might have sung and embellished the theme.

Q. How does Carter explore the full potential of the modern piano in his Piano Sonata?

A. Carter is constantly experimenting in this work with ways to get the undamped strings of the piano to ring in sympathy with other notes being played. This ringing is accomplished with sostenuto pedal, or the damper pedal and sometimes with notes held down silently while others are rather violently struck. Using these techniques, Carter actually gets a tune to speak in overtones at a couple of points. One has to listen carefully to hear it, but it’s a very interesting effect which I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere. Additionally, Carter exploits the terrific power and dynamic range of the piano, as this piece goes from roaringly loud to whisper soft very often and very quickly. Finally, Carter exploits the facile responsiveness of the modern piano with the very complex and fast rhythms which he uses in his characteristic fashion.

Q. What is the overall character of Foss’ music and what is the specific identity of Solo for Piano?

A. Lukas Foss is a prodigiously gifted musician with a quick mind and wit. He is constantly trying out new styles and techniques and in his entire output, no two pieces are similar. The constant element that runs through all of his music is a very open heart, light spirit and tendency toward lyricism and joy. Lukas is greatly influenced by Mozart and the lyricism we find in Mozart, we find throughout his music. This is quite unusual for 20th century music.

Solo for Piano was written in the 80′s. Its constantly evolving ostinato of eighth notes is based on a 12 tone row. Initially, Foss manipulates the row employing the usual techniques of playing it upside down, backwards, and so on; all the while the texture and color of the piece almost imperceptibly evolve as the piece drones on and on. Similar to the Bennett piece in a way, this work has an evolving technique as it proceeds, but Foss goes further and commits the cardinal sin of actually appearing to change style during the course of the work. The piece begins with rather orthodox serial techniques, and by its end it has become this huge, rather tonal romp. The changes occur slowly and subtly, but overall it just gets bigger and bigger and more tonal, eventually coming to a huge climax. Then there’s a little joke at the end, where the composer suddenly juxtaposes the first twelve notes of the piece quietly played. Foss tells me he wanted it to sound like someone had “bumped the needle on the phonograph” and he hoped to frighten the listener with the momentary possibility that the piece was starting over.

Interviewed by Mary A. Hannon