Saturday, February 3, 2007

Dennis Riley

A while back, I mentioned that while my piano was being rebuilt, I would work on a computer prototype of a new piano piece. The work I selected was Dennis Riley's Canonic Variations (Piano Piece No. 1). Riley was a professor at Columbia, but his compositions are poorly represented on recordings. He wrote three piano pieces fairly early in his career, all from the early 1960s when he wrote in a post-Webern style, using serial techniques. He died in 1999. There isn't a lot of information about him on the web, but there's a short CV here, and his papers are at the University of Colorado's American Music Research Center (Riley got his B.Mus. at Colorado).

Riley's three solo piano works are all published by C. F. Peters, and during the idealistic and fairly flush days of my youth (when I was living at home), I picked up the scores for all three. Peters published Cage and Feldman, and had a whole booklet for their contemporary piano collection, which was probably how I picked these up. The first two pieces are collections of very short pieces, Six Canonic Variations for the first one, and Five Little Movements for the second. They are both conventionally notated and published on standard 8x11 paper.

The third piece is completely different. Published more in a landscape format on larger paper, it uses the sostenuto pedal, has no time signature, lots of grace notes and complex rhythmic notations. There are three pages to the score: the first one has two staves that fill the page fairly normally. The second has nine system distributed on three lines, and three clear pieces of plastic with three more systems on each, which the performer should overlay on top of the page. This device provides a certain flexibility in performance, as presumably each performer will place the plastic differently. The use of plastic overlays is unique in my experience, although it's certainly related to some of the unconventional notation that was in the air at the time. The most famous examples are Stockhausen's Klavierstucke XI and Boulez's 3rd sonata, but my personal favorite was Henri Pousseur's Miroirs de Votre Faust, where the score had cutout windows so you could see through to the music behind the page that you were currently viewing.

Anyway, as a fulfillment of the exercise, I've posted an mp3 of Riley's Six Canonic Variations. It's only 90 seconds long. For my part, it was a worthwhile effort, and it might be fun to try something a little more unconventional next time.

1 comment:

Alice R said...

Thank you for even taking a moment to mention my father let alone post some of his music. Let me know if you need/want any info - Alice Riley, I will check back.