November 2020 brings a major CD release Becomings of Sam Hayden’s complete solo piano works by the extraordinary pianist Ian Pace. Composers Edition’s Késia Decoté caught up with the composer to talk about the works and the recording.
Késia Decoté: We have seen many of your works using the piano in ensembles, orchestras, and with electronics. Now, here we have an entire double CD of your solo piano pieces! Can you tell us about your feelings in this experience of releasing your entire oeuvre for this instrument that carries such a weight of tradition?
Sam Hayden: I’m of course very excited about the release, having had the opportunity and privilege to work with such a remarkable musician as Ian Pace. I never really had issues per se with writing for instruments with long canonical traditions, such as solo piano or string quartet. It’s true that I have used the piano more often as an ensemble instrument. It has always been much more a question of finding my own creative reasons for doing so (and the right performers to realise my ideas), given so much music already exists. I also had to find a means of composing using 12TET, given much of my ensemble music is microtonal. That also partly explains the long gap between the earlier Composers Edition pieces grouped on CD2 and the much more recent Becomings I-VII featured on the CD1, from which the album gets its name.
KD: In Fragment (After Losses) I hear an opening up dynamic, a crescendo in complexity, but somehow keeping the sonic world very grounded, with the very last gesture sounding like a reminiscence. How is your view of the piano as an instrument to compose for?
SH: This piece to an extent reflects my (then) view of the piano as an ensemble instrument (some of the material has its origins in my orchestral piece Sunk Losses), exploiting its percussive and resonance characteristics (as opposed to the polyphony of Becomings). The sectional form reflects this approach, given fragmented pointillistic textures are contrasted with brief musical mechanisms which are more pulse orientated. There are certainly ‘reminiscences’ of various modernist approaches to piano writing, the final gesture being one such example.
KD: Durations of textures and silences seemed to be the paramount elements in my listening of …still time…” Was the temporal aspect a key element for the structure of this piece? Can you tell us about the ideas behind it?
SH: ..still time… really explores contrasts between loud and rapid polyrhythmic textures and quiet isolated musical events. A more ‘gestural’ and directional style of piano writing is juxtaposed with extended silences which disrupt any sense of linear continuity or narrative. The kinds of chromatic pitch structures used in both the dense and sparse textures are actually very similar, the latter being an extremely slowed down version of the former. At the time of writing, I had in mind differing human attitudes towards the passing of time, either in existential struggle or stoical acceptance, ideas that could be seen to be represented by the contrasting materials.
KD: Both …still time… and Piano Moves are from 1990… which one comes first then? I see them as such different works, one presenting intercutting gestures, another one following a process-based dynamic… Can you tell us more about this, having two very contrasting pieces in a relative short period of time?
SH: Piano Moves was actually the first piece of the two, …still time… coming a bit later in 1990 when I was studying with Michael Finnissy. I was relatively young at the time and consciously exploring different approaches and techniques influenced by composers I was interested in. This partly explains why these pieces are very different, Piano Moves being much more gradual, process-driven music (minimalistic, in some ways), and …still time… having more in common with what might be called ‘experimentalist’ approaches and, dare I say it, ‘complexity’! But these pieces definitely have in common an interest in the inherent physical characteristics of the piano with its specific sonic envelopes of percussive attacks and gradually decaying resonances, and explorations of the passing of time are inherent in their (differing) global formal concepts.
KD: The award-winning Piano Moves seems to start by allowing the listener to notice and enjoy the resonance of the piano… and that resonance stays with us as the piece unfolds with increasing complexity, until it breathes and we remember that initial resonance again. The amplification of the piano is exactly to allow this ‘sound continuum’, isn’t it? How does the amplification work, in technical terms? And, what were your references/inspirations for this piece? Is the title a kind of reference to the physicality of the piano playing?
SH: The idea behind the amplification required for Piano Moves is simply to enhance the given sonic characteristics of the piano, highlighting the resonance aspects of the instrument in particular, which gradually build up as the piece progresses, firstly during the more pulse-based section of the piece and secondly during the longer chord-based section. Harmonic rhythm is deliberately slowed down so that the listener can focus on the accumulating resonances. The sound processing itself is quite subtle and not intended to make the piano sound overtly ‘electronic’, e.g. in the way Stockhausen does in the ring-modulated sounds of Mantra. Some compression is used to narrow the dynamic range, then the overall gain is increased so the resonances are lifted and remain audible for longer. Some reverberation is also used, again extending the natural decay of the instrument, but not too obviously. The ‘moves’ part of the title at once refers to the series of relatively sudden harmonic changes, where the hands move outwards periodically from the middle register. It does indeed refer to the physicality of the piano playing and also to the more subjective emotional sense of being moved. I think I also thought (less seriously) about the connotations of piano removal!
KD: And, how fantastic is to have Ian Pace performing and recording your complete music for solo piano! Can you tell us more about your work together?
SH: Given Ian is such a champion of new music and he certainly relishes extreme technical challenges. He was the ideal person to approach to perform my rather monumental Becomings cycle. Once he had agreed to take on the piece, I composed two more movements to complete the work and he gave the premiere of the entire 7-movement cycle in 2019. I think I really had Ian in mind when I composed the virtuosic (and rather frantic!) movement VI which is a little different to the others. It was easy to work with him as he has such an immediate and complete understanding of all the music (from both technical and aesthetic points of view) that I didn’t need to explain very much at all. It was really his idea to make an album of my complete solo piano works, something that has not been done before and for which I will always be grateful.