Michael Alec Rose is probably not the first composer in history to have explored the intersection of mysticism and eroticism in music. But he's surely the first to have combined piano strings and Ben Wa balls to create the musical equivalent of an erogenous zone.
This weekend, British pianist Zubin Kanga will premiere Rose's Sui Generis: Five Types for Piano Inside/Out at the Blair School of Music's Choral Rehearsal Hall. In the second of those five types, a piece called "Sci-Fi," Rose calls on the pianist to produce a variety of strange timbres by rotating a high-pitched Ben Wa ball along the A string inside the piano.
"After Zubin got a copy of the score, he actually went to a London sex shop to try to find some Ben Wa balls," says Rose, who could barely restrain a mischievous cackle. "It's true that Ben Wa balls are sex toys, but they are also spiritual tools sometimes used in Zen meditation. In 'Sci-Fi,' tuned Ben Wa balls are used to explore different colors and create an absolutely fun, wacky piece."
Rose, a prolific composer and longtime professor at the Blair School of Music, met Kanga in Nashville about four years ago, when the young pianist was participating in an exchange program between Blair and London's Royal Academy of Music. Kanga was a specialist in playing inside the piano, on the strings themselves, and Rose remembers being amazed at the pianist's expressive range.
"Zubin was doing things inside the piano that I would have thought impossible," says Rose. "His playing got me thinking about the possibility of writing a piece for inside the piano that would be both edgy and romantic at the same time."
Rose found a working model for such a piece in the music of one of his former teachers, the great American composer George Crumb. In 1972, Crumb composed a daring work for amplified piano called Makrokosmos: Twelve Fantasy-Pieces After the Zodiac. (Kanga will also perform this seldom-heard masterpiece at Saturday's concert.)
Throughout Crumb's dauntingly difficult half-hour-long piece, the pianist is required to play both outside the piano (on the keys) and inside the instrument (plucking strings). What's more, the pianist must also decipher the work's complex, visually arresting graphic notation. Crumb twisted the music staff's traditional horizontal lines into swirling spirals, circles and crosses. His idea was to make the music look like the various signs of the Zodiac. What he got was an amazing hybrid — a musical score that was also an artwork worthy of hanging in a museum.
One thing Crumb did not include in Makrokosmos was any heartfelt lyricism of his own. He did quote a tune from Chopin's über-Romantic Fantasie-Impromptu. But he didn't write anything lyrical himself. For Crumb, a beautiful melody was like a relic from the past, an object that could be admired from afar but not re-created with any genuine feeling.
"Composers from Crumb's generation experienced the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, so they became almost monk-like in their approach to music," Rose says. "What they did was deny themselves the pleasure and luxury of writing lyrically romantic music. Composers from my generation have been much more open to melody."
So Rose set out to write a seamless fusion of avant-garde and neo-Romantic music.
The five pieces (or types) contained in Sui Generis all get titles from different pulp-fiction genres — "Mystery," "Sci-Fi," "Romance," "Horror" and "Fantasy." The first, piece, "Mystery," begins with a cadenza of plucked strings and rapid glissandos played inside the piano. These effects are followed by quicksilver melodic patterns played on the keys. Rose dedicated this piece to Royal Academy of Music composer David Gorton. "David is this sweet, unassuming person who writes fiendishly difficult music," says Rose. "For me, it is a mystery that such sweetness and scariness can exist in one human being."
"Sci-Fi," dedicated to Kanga, is the most experimental piece in Sui Generis. This is also the one piece in the score that is handwritten instead of printed. "Zubin said he understood the nuances of the piece best in the handwritten manuscript, so he asked me not to print it," says Rose.
Rose dedicated "Romance" to his wife Joanna. "This was a deliberate effort to compose an intensely romantic piece," says Rose. "I want it to become my version of Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-sharp minor."
Royal Academy of Music violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved, a virtuoso of the first rank, has the dubious honor of being the dedicatee of "Horror." "Every time Peter asks me to write something for him, his ideas are so challenging that I feel terrified," says Rose. "That's why I call the piece 'Horror.' "
Sui Generis ends with "Fantasy," Rose's favorite pulp-fiction genre. The work includes the unusual tempo marking "Born Ready." Not surprisingly, the music comes across as a flight of improvisational fancy.
"I love fantasy and am a huge fan of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter," says Rose. "So this piece is really my self-portrait."
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