Welcome back to Piano Sonata Movement 2 and How it’s Made! So far you heard me talk about the writing and editing process for this piece. Today you will hear the other side of the story. Ethan Valentin, one of my closest friends and longtime collaborator, graciously agreed to write about his side of the process, and how he looks at New Music. He already played the first movement, The Arrogance of Time, which you can buy at 

nebalmaysaud.bandcamp.com

.

This is the first time I’ve been asked to contribute to something like this, and I’m so flattered that Nebal asked me to write for his blog. I’ve struggled deciding how to approach this and what I hope a reader will take away from this, and to be honest I’m not really sure I’ve figured anything out. If nothing else, if you haven’t listened to Nebal’s music or if you don’t consider yourself particularly interested in new music, I hope that after reading you’ll listen to his album and check out other composers like him.
We’ve known each other for about three years now, and we’ve been working together for about two. I’m majoring in Piano Performance with an emphasis in Collaborative Piano at Lawrence University, and in the last few years here I’ve had tons of amazing opportunities to work with extraordinarily talented instrumentalists, vocalists, and composers. Of all the projects that I’ve been a part of, working with Nebal has been the longest lasting and most frequent. I remember that he asked me early in my sophomore year if I’d be interested in looking at his Piano Sonata, originally written for our good friend Joey Arkfeld. It was more than a year before I would play it in his senior recital, and in that time I would get to work with him as an assistant on a piece for two organs, and perform on the premiere of his opera scene.
.
It was when Nebal first gave me the score for the first movement of the Piano Sonata that I realized how ambitious he is. I didn’t know better than to ask “are you serious?” when I flipped through and looked over the first four pages, mostly just repeated octaves on C and to the last page, which those of you who saw the concert or listened to the recording remember, is a minute and a half crescendo of forearm clusters. What?
.
I remember I approached it and encountered several passages in the piece which baffled me. I didn’t see a way around these jumbled, confusing textures and my go-to response was to ask Nebal to change it. He’s a busy guy, and he didn’t always have time to look at it right away – that didn’t mean I necessarily had time to stop practicing it. After weeks of looking at the same passage and playing around with it, some things started changing. My fingers were tripping over themselves less, I was hearing connections I hadn’t been before, and I was making it to the end of the passage before stopping to skip over it.
I recall an admittedly childlike moment of “fine….you were right.” That’s one of the things that I’ve grown to love about playing Nebal’s music, he gets so. damn. close. to the line in the sand where I can ask him to change something. He gets so close to unplayable, but it’s juuuuust enough on this side that I’d feel like I was doing a disservice to the creativity and originality to ask that he change something that he likes and is physically possible. I feel like that aspect of his music has taught me a lot, I can’t just not play it or demand that he change it because it’s “too hard.” I’ve learned new ways to approach difficult passages to make things comfortable and relaxed when at first I didn’t even think it was possible.
.
I can honestly say that I’ve typed more than I’ve sent messages that say “Damn it Nebal how many fingers do you think I have” or “I think you forgot to notate ‘middle arm’ here because I’ll definitely need one.” I take pride in the approach I’ve learned to find ways I can make things work when I didn’t initially see a way. Two bars from A Psalm of David, where wrote a very difficult run for the left hand are a perfect example of that. The quarter note pulse he suggested here was 120 bpm, and my questions ranged from “Why the octaves” to “Why is the left hand….like that?” It took me a long time, but it ended up being really fun to play and very effective musically.
.
Dealing with these technical issues in Nebal’s music taught me a lot about how I play, and how easy it can be to practice healthy habits when the music is ergonomically friendly. Nebal mentioned in one of his blog posts that he didn’t normally send performers rough drafts, but I think I’ve learned enough through looking at his other music to help him reevaluate his approach to make passages not only possible but easy for me to play well. When we Skyped and I walked him through my impressions of a rough draft of movement two of his Sonata The Arrogance of Time, I tried to structure my feedback in a way that I could say: I have an issue with this passage – it is possible/not possible because ___, – since ___ is the specific issue, you could probably make it work if you ___. In one particular measure of the new movement, I discovered a few hurdles that Nebal will probably want to address. It’s a really climactic moment, that’s pretty clear to me by the wide range, loud dynamic, and filled in harmony. When I played it though, I found that the texture was muddy and indistinct, and it wasn’t possible to play everything that’s notated in the left hand. I suggested that if he were to remove some of the thirds in the lower octaves, the sound might be more clear – we would be rid of that muddiness. Similarly, a consistent rising accompanying pattern as opposed to the repeating rising pattern would allow the bass octave on the last beat to stand alone and display its power and momentum, with no question of that role.
The last thing I want to do with feedback is respond to my emotional connection with the music, or respond to anything general. He’s not done with his creative process in the same way that in the half hour I looked at the music I didn’t finish my interpretive process. I hope that my involvement in the new piece can help Nebal convey the sounds he’s looking for to the performer with less room for the performer to misinterpret the music; to help minimize the time that future performers spend “woodshedding” an inefficient passage while maximizing the time that we can spend approaching the big ideas that Nebal’s sharing with us through his music.
.
Thank you so much for reading! Keep supporting your local musicians and composers and don’t forget to download Nebal’s album.
.
.
.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>