for solo piano
July – August 2015; 9′
Commissioned by Jin Hyung Lim.
Premiere: 5th September 2015, Unitarian Chapel, York
I. recurring evils
II. temporary remedies
“Politics is the art of devising temporary remedies for recurring evils — a series of expedients, not a project of salvation.” (John Gray)
This piece, for talking pianist, comprises two structured improvisations and texts. When given this concert’s theme, I found there was no shortage of political events or issues that incited a strong response in me. I was forced to consider what purpose art could have in ?tackling any such issues. My response has been to focus not on one specific issue, but on an aspect of human behaviour which seemed common to many.
I am always aware of the physicality of music-making; here, an individual with only the hammers of a grand piano to strike. As often happens, I found a text which I could not get out of my head:
IF YOUR ONLY TOOL IS A HAMMER EVERYTHING LOOKS LIKE A NAIL
This text is derived from philosopher Abraham Kaplan’s ‘law of the instrument’, defined as an over-reliance on a familiar tool or perspective. The phrase is also known as ‘Maslow’s Hammer’ after psychologist Abraham Maslow expressed concerns about reductionism, suggesting scientific methods ‘would reduce our minds to something quantifiable’.
In Recurring Evils, the pianist recites that text many times, playing a semitone dyad in between each word. This part is influenced by American artist Bruce Naumann’s word games, in which the speaker of a repeated phrase ends up expressing multiple meanings both consciously and unconsciously. Reduction is the evil that recurs as the pianist is caught between conscious and unconscious expression, between separate, opposed materials. Tension increases with the gradual introduction of quotations of Beethoven, Mahler and Pierre Boulez, linked by a theme of hammers (Sonata Op.106, Symphony No.6, Le marteau sans maître).
Temporary Remedies features a poem I have derived from a text that offers a consolatory message. This text is graffiti found on the tiles of a public toilet (location unknown), photographed by an artist and posted on Twitter:
EARTH WITHOUT ART IS JUST EH
The pianist reads the text slowly. Simultaneously, three musical materials unfold in a sequence (EARTH phrases, ART chords, EH echoes): text and music, no longer opposed, hold no tension between them. However, wordplay in the poem reveals contradictions. After finishing the piece, my discovery of Jacques Rancière’s portrayal of ‘right wing frenzy’ and left wing melancholy’ seemed apt.