Bagatelles (Book I)

for piano

an ongoing series of piano pieces
1: aerobic invention (2½ mins)
2: free and easy (2¾ mins)
3: sweet and sour (2 mins)
4: Wasserklang (6 mins)

Programme notes

In 2007, realising that it had been many years since I had written for solo piano, I began a long series of pieces with the open and non-specific title Bagatelle which could be anything I wanted it to be – and which would reflect my current compositional interests, rather like a musical diary. Never one to do things by halves, I decided to write one hundred of these over the next ten years.

This may sound madness when one has passed the age of sixty; but there is method in it. For the last few years I have been building my music from eight-note modes. These use four notes from each of the two hexachords (six semitones) which make up the octave. I will not bore the listener with details; enough to say that this helps me create the sort of audible identity which one associates with tonal music, without the danger of the déjà entendu – or the banal – which is inescapable when one uses a language so overloaded with historical baggage. As it happens, there are a hundred different modes of this type.

In Aerobic invention (mode 1 on C) a two-part contrapuntal opening is followed by a decorated chorale; then the opening material returns in canon and turns into a fugue, which fades away after the subject has been stretched out into a series of trills; finally, the material is verticalised as a series of chunky chords in a thoroughly aerobic coda.

Free and easy (mode 12 on G) is the simplest of the four pieces. A lilting phrase is passed through a modal prism which alters the intervals in an unpredictable way. The supporting harmony shifts correspondingly, and there is no other attempt at variety: once the melody has rung the modal changes and returned to its starting-point, the piece ends.

Sweet and sour (mode 23 on D) takes its name from its contrasted character, and is also a tease at my wife Malu, who is half Chinese and whom I call Sweet Pea when she is nice and Sour Pee when she is not. This is a deceptively hard piece: it denies the pianist use of the pedal, forcing her to create genuine hand legato for the left-hand melody which takes up the first part. In the second part, the left hand sounds the notes of the mode like bells in the centre register, while the right hand cuts out a series of staccato chords all over the keyboard. The piece ends with a reprise of the opening, but with the notes exchanged between the two strands of music.

Wasserklang is a piece about the sounds of water. At the beginning, the piano is on the surface, with light reflected on tiny ripples; then it plunges to the bottom, and explores the transparency and shifting light of the underwater world. A two-note theme emerges, and the music bursts briefly out into the air; then dives down again, using the sustaining pedal to create confusion and strange resonances. This is interrupted by a short silence, after which a passage of rapid repeated notes leads to the main climax, which mimics the splashing of waves. This ends in a passage of double trills which fades to a quiet, high chord. There follows a virtuosic coda marked schimmernd und glitzernd which begins very quietly, but slowly grows to a climax of rhythmically uneven chords (like huge waves crashing on the shore). The piece ends with a quiet upward legato phrase, like drops of silvery water tossed into the air.

Giles Swayne
October 2008