Signature Suites: My Latest Creative Obsession
Updated: Sep 16, 2022
To those of you who know me as a sometime arranger of cello music, usually from original Bulgarian works for other instruments or orchestra, it may come as a surprise that over the last couple of months I have become slightly obsessed with composing… for piano. I have never considered myself a composer, nor am I a performing pianist, so this current creative wave of mine has come up unexpectedly. But as long as I’m on it, I plan to ride it out!
There is a bit of a backstory here. When I returned permanently to the US after a quarter-century (OK, I rounded up from 23 years) of musical adventures in Bulgaria, I had the opportunity to work with some wonderful young people on projects geared to making musical creativity more immediately assessable to students with a very limited musical knowledge base. One of the tools we developed to facilitate this creativity was a musical notation cipher, where each letter of the alphabet is linked to a music note letter. The original idea for this type of code, arrived at quite spontaneously as I remember, came from two very dear students, cellist Tressa Hunt and violinist Ellen Hayashi. Based on a substitution principle, the code unlocks possibilities for creating a melody—a cipher in sound—from any series of words.
For centuries, classical composers have been using similar techniques to fashion musical cryptograms. Personal mottos have formed the basis of such works as the F A E Sonata, a collaborative effort of Schumann, Brahms, and Dietrich, who took violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim’s Frei aber einsam (“free but lonely”) motto as their theme as a birthday surprise for Joachim in 1852. (Brahms' Scherzo movement for this sonata is often played as a stand-alone piece: listen here.) Over a century earlier, Johann Sebastian Bach had introduced his “signature” theme—a four-note chromatic motif created from his own last name—as the subject of the final fugue of his unfinished composition, Art of the Fugue. B A C H, with B representing the note B-flat and H representing B-natural (per German note-naming practice), later made reappearances in Bach homages by Romantic-period composers including Liszt (in Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme BACH), and, again, Schumann (in Six Fugues on the Name BACH, Op. 60).
An especially effusive musical cryptogrammer, Schumann encoded many references to people and places in his music. His transliteration of “Clara” in the descending LA-RE (A-D, a perfect fifth) motif appears with ravishing regularity from the very outset of his A-Major string quartet and other works, in loving reference to his wife and artistic partner—and one of the greatest solo pianists of the 19th century—Clara Wieck Schumann. Twentieth century composers also got into the cryptogrammatic game, notably Shostakovich, whose four-note musical signature DSCH, also relying on the German note-naming system (where S is E-flat), is more of a musical monogram, since it represents “D” and “Sch”—the first Cyrillic letters of the composer’s name. Appearing often in Shostakovich’s music, it is especially pervasive in his 8th string quartet, where D S C H is first heard in the cello to start the work. And like the BACH motif, DSCH was later taken up as an homage to Shostakovich, most extensively by his protégé Edison Denisov, and also by Schnittke, Britten, and many others.
My Signature Suites for piano are a modest variation on the cryptogrammatic theme. They are based on melodies constructed on the “encoded” first and last names of some of my music students, who also requested personalized rhythmic motives, intervallic shapes (rising or falling, moving by step or skip), and dynamics, and made specific choices as to tempo and character of the music they wanted to represent them. Part of my compositional task was to incorporate as many of these preferences as I could into each signature piece. In some cases this proved more challenging due to conflicting choices, such as a combination of a narrow range and wide intervals, or a calm character with a fast tempo and loud dynamics. Requests expressed in poetic language proved especially helpful: “like a roaring inferno” and “like walking in a field of flowers” were two of my favorites. And how could “I want it to sound kinda weird” not inspire!
The pieces themselves are intentionally brief, and in most cases I have stuck to the “minute or less” rule. I conceived of them as aphoristic character pieces, and I wanted them to be assessible to pianists as a living tribute in sound to the people whose names are embedded in them. While I did incorporate full names, in order to protect the innocent I do not include a “key” to the code, and I refer to individuals only by their initials, a la Elgar in his Enigma Variations. Composed primarily during the month of May, the pieces are infused (I think) with the hopefulness and good humor that a long-awaited (and this year late-arriving) spring also inspires in me.
Since that time, I have been tweaking the writing to more successfully bridge the gap between the ideal and what is possible for less experienced pianists. Special thanks to my very experienced pianist colleagues Vesko Stambolov of Barcelona and Carson Rose Schneider of Minneapolis for their expert advice and encouragement during this process. Dedicated to the VIVAPIANO Competition for Non-Professional Pianists, an annual event of the Sofia-based Ardenza Foundation, my signature miniatures can be played in any number, combination, or order. I have grouped them into three suites: a dance suite, a song-like suite, and a bonus suite. Click here to sample them, as recorded by Dr. Schneider.