Pianist and writer Melanie Spanswick takes us through her latest set of published piano pieces, collectively titled 'Simply Driven'
We live in very difficult times and I sincerely hope you and your families are safe and well. The Coronavirus has certainly changed our world, perhaps forever. As musicians, we need to move with these changes, and, like many teachers, my lessons are now all online. This is not something I particularly enjoy because I believe students need their teacher sitting next to them in order to help correct movements and thus establish a relaxed technique. But change I must, and, hopefully, I’ll find new ways to convey my message to my pupils. There will be more about online teaching in a future post, but for now, my thoughts are firmly with those who are suffering this dreadful disease and our wonderful medics who have the unbelievably daunting task of treating so many patients.
In today’s post, I’d like to introduce my new set of original piano pieces which were published earlier this month.
Simply Driven, published by Schott in the renowned Edition Schott Series, is a collection of five pieces intended for advanced to virtuoso level pianists: Frenzy, Aisa: Sand, Silk and Love, Enigma, Chasm and Time.
Each piece proffers a completely different character, whilst still reflecting minimalist influences. Composed over a period of a year, four of the five pieces were written for friends who are all wonderful pianists; Aisa Ijiri, Yuki Negishi, Maiko Mori and Madalina Rusu, and each pianist has recorded their respective piece.
You might well ask why I chose this title for the volume; it was inspired by comments from several friends, who said my music often felt ‘driven’, or forward moving. These pieces will hopefully appeal to pianists searching for modern music with a distinctly tonal quality but with a slightly Contemporary twist. Frenzy and Aisa are approximately Grade 8 level, whereas Enigma, Chasm, and Time, would be more suited to those preparing for diplomas and beyond.
Here’s a little more information about each piece, with a link to performances which are played by the dedicatees.
Aisa: Sand, Silk and Love
Aisa: Sand, Silk and Love was written in August 2018 especially for Japanese pianist Aisa Ijiri. The meaning of the title, Sand, Silk and Love, necessitates a slow tempo with a feel for the sentiment behind these words. Aisa is in the style of a power ballad; melodic, expressive and slightly sentimental.
After an ominous opening, the melody emerges from a group of chromatic chords, forming the basis of the contemplative, reflective melody, which gradually builds in intensity. The brisk middle section is rather akin to a two-part invention. This is followed by a return to the melodic material, which passionately reappears as rolled chords, employing the entire keyboard, allowing the strings to resonate with a sonorous ringing tone.
There is a tendency to oscillate between the major and minor, and the ending, in the major key, might signify a final resolution.
Aisa was first performed by the dedicatee, Aisa Ijiri, in November 2018 as part of the Shiga Bank Piano Festival held in Japan. The piece has been played, by Aisa, on Serbian National TV and radio on several occasions during 2020, and is being recorded for the Steinway Spirio piano. Aisa has also been featured as the soundtrack to a film which focuses on the artist María Inés Aguirre, as she paints a Steinway Model D piano. You can watch the video below.
"It has been a wonderful journey working with Melanie right from the beginning when we first met back in the summer of 2018. This piece draws inspiration from a true love story behind my name – Aisa, which means Love (Ai) and Sand & Silk (Sa). Melanie has captured my inner character so perfectly well, and I felt as if I was writing my own diary with my own words when I first played it. It’s a very beautiful, meditative, and also deeply romantic, piece.
Aisa gives an opportunity for piano students to work on evenness in fast passages, arm-stroke in arpeggios, depth of sound in big chords by releasing tension, and bel canto tone on beautiful melodic lines. Working with Melanie has been an inspiration too! She asked my personal thoughts as a performer, and we gave life to this piece by sharing concert and filming experiences, as well as all the emotions and impressions we felt during this process. This is a true music- making!"
Aisa Ijiri – concert pianist, artistic director, and dedicatee of ‘Aisa: Sand, Silk and Love’ (March 2020)
Composed in February 2019 especially for Japanese pianist Yuki Negishi, this miniature programmatic work inhabits an atmospheric, dreamy sound world. It employs the full range of the keyboard and seeks to showcase the enigmatic resonance of the instrument. The essence of the enigma, which manifests itself in the melancholic mood alludes to a tragic love affair, which might remain forever elusive. However, the sudden switch to the major key, particularly at the end of the piece, offers some hope and a possible joyful conclusion.
Enigma was first performed in April 2019 at the Symphony Salon in Tokyo, Japan, as part of the International Festival and Piano Course, Piano Week, and it was played by the dedicatee, Yuki Negishi. The piece has also been recorded by Yuki, and will released by the Quartz record label during 2020.
"For me, 'Enigma' exemplifies the mysteries and magic of our world and lives – I was drawn to the atmospheric and dramatic sound world from the first time I played the piece, and I have been searching for the right sound balance, timing and tone throughout the process of making the piece my own.
The meditative, almost religious and ethereal opening, middle section (in F major) and ending, envelops the drama and cascades of notes in F minor – a key that can equally express both passion and tragedy (think Appassionata, Brahms Piano Quintet, etc). It is a human story."
Yuki Negishi – concert pianist, artistic director, and dedicatee of ‘Enigma’ (March 2020)
Chasm was written in September 2019 for Japanese pianist Maiko Mori. This work is a piano étude, or piano study, intended to hone or develop a pianist’s technical skills. Written in Ternary form (or an A-B-A structure), it contains two swift outer sections and a much slower middle section, which unfolds in an unrelated key offering an ethereal character, whilst making the most of the piano’s rich timbres.
The faster sections are lively and energetic with constantly changing meters (4/4 and 3/8), and they require a significant amount of movement across the keyboard. The technical challenge is to move easily whilst keeping articulation crisp, even and rhythmical. The touch also varies with differing accentuation markings, hence the subtitle: L’Étude Touché.
"I find 'Chasm' very rewarding to perform. By achieving the challenge of playing notes scattered across the keyboard lightly whilst keeping articulation crisp, you will find a spectrum of dazzling colours flashing on the keyboard, and this coupled with the constant change of meter, enhances the excitement. It almost makes me feel like I am painting a picture with vivid colour palette, which is utterly enjoyable."
Maiko Mori – concert pianist and dedicatee of ‘Chasm’ (March 2020)
Time is a theme and set of variations. Composed between January and August 2019, for Romanian pianist Madalina Rusu, the structure of this work remains faithful to the traditional concept of a theme and variations. The theme is merely a simple statement; a series of chords with occasional chromatic twists, from which springs a sombre, soul-searching melody.
These twists are explored more fully in a series of eleven variations. The variations move to a climactic point in Variation 4, after which Variations 5 to 8 are much slower and more expressive in character, switching from the major to a bleak, distant minor (Variation 6), before returning to the major. A brief fugal section heralds a more powerful cluster of variations (10 and 11), before a majestic coda concludes the set.
The title, Time, signifies the ever present, constant pulse; the same tempo is kept throughout with the exception of the coda, which is marked allargando.
Time was first performed by its dedicatee, Madalina Rusu, at Colyer-Fergusson Hall, in Canterbury (UK) in January 2020.
"I felt so incredibly honoured and beyond excited when I received the sheet music of “Time” from Melanie and I immediately had to read it through. I was fascinated by Melanie’s wonderfully pianistic writing, and found that it was a perfect fit for my fingers, but more importantly, I felt I could really identify with it musically and artistically, every note has so much meaning and darkness that I loved.
Time has a wonderful variety of darkness, peace, joy and sadness and has a wide range of technical challenges. But for me, musically, it is an incredible work that made me appreciate Melanie’s compositional writing even more than ever before."
Madalina Rusu – concert pianist and dedicatee of ‘Time’ (March 2020)
Frenzy was written in December 2017. It’s the first piece in this volume, and is an Étude, or piano study, written with the intention to hone and perfect articulation and note clarity, and it is featured in Play it again: PIANO Book 3 (Schott).
This work consists of swirling semiquavers constructed from arpeggios and broken chords, moving in various repetitive patterns around the keyboard. The challenge is to play the rapid passagework evenly and with a smooth legato touch whilst highlighting and shaping the melody, which appears in alternate hands.
The style is tonal and melodic, and although the mood is rather breathless (or ‘frenzied’), the piece has an air of nostalgia, drifting off mysteriously in a sound haze at the end.
Frenzy was first performed by pianist Aisa Ijiri in November 2018 as part of the Shiga Bank Piano Festival, held in Japan.
You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.