Volume 1 of the American Piano Music Series
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You can also download this album at Bandcamp.
As a student of the piano for most of my life, I've attended many piano recitals. I've always wondered why the bulk of the standard repertoire was mainly European. Don't get me wrong - I love Mozart, Bach, Chopin, Liszt and Beethoven as much as anyone, but the lack of American music in the concert hall always bothered me.
It's only been recently that I decided to focus my research and energy on uncovering unique American composers that deserved to be heard more in the concert hall. My ultimate goal is to release ten albums of American piano music over the next ten years - an album a year. Each album will focus on seven unique American composers and feature three of their works.
This album, Volume 1, focuses on the following seven composers. Click on a composer name to see a full biography.
I have decided to thread and dovetail the pieces from each composer in a more programmatic fashion, as opposed to playing the pieces sequentially by composer.
Some of the composers, like Aaron Copland, are well known. Others, like Dana Suesse, are mostly forgotten. But all of them have one thing in common - a unique American voice that deserves to be heard.
There’s a lot of nuance and detail in this music. The very best way to appreciate it is to listen with a good pair of headphones. Try it - It makes a big difference!
I hope you enjoy listening to each of these pieces as much as I enjoyed recording them.
- Corte Swearingen, December, 2020
Notes on the Music
1. Blues for Jay (2009) -Dick Hyman
"Blues for Jay" is a heartfelt and soulful blues piano improvisation by the legendary jazz pianist Dick Hyman, dedicated to the memory of the iconic jazz bandleader and pianist, Jay McShann. This piece pays homage to the blues tradition that both Hyman and McShann held dear, encapsulating the spirit and emotions that are at the heart of this enduring musical genre.
The blues is a language of the soul, and in "Blues for Jay," Dick Hyman speaks this language with a voice that is both timeless and deeply personal. The composition begins with a melancholic yet inviting introduction, setting the stage for a journey through the rich and evocative landscape of the blues.
As the piece unfolds, Hyman weaves together a tapestry of emotions, ranging from moments of introspection and reflection to bursts of expressive virtuosity. The blues scale, with its characteristic flatted thirds and sevenths, forms the foundation of the composition, allowing for the raw and visceral expression that is the hallmark of this genre.
Throughout the piece, one can hear echoes of Jay McShann's own distinctive style and the influence he had on generations of jazz musicians. The piece captures the essence of McShann's bluesy piano playing, which was both technically impressive and deeply soulful. It is a fitting tribute to a musician who played a significant role in shaping the course of jazz and blues music.
2. Central Park (1957) - Judith Lang Zaimont
"Central Park," a remarkable piano composition by the talented composer Judith Lang Zaimont, is a testament to the often-overlooked contributions of women composers in the realm of piano music. This piece, part of her piano suite "American City: Portrait of New York," is a musical journey that showcases both Zaimont's early artistic prowess and her enduring impact on the world of composition.
What makes "Central Park" even more astonishing is that Judith Lang Zaimont composed this piece when she was just 12 years old. It is a testament to her prodigious talent and the boundless potential that can emerge from young composers with a deep passion for music. Even at a young age, Zaimont demonstrated an innate ability to craft engaging and emotive melodies.
"Central Park" is a vital part of Zaimont's larger musical portrait of New York City. Through this composition, she invites us to explore the heart of the city as seen through the eyes of a young composer. The suite "American City: Portrait of New York" captures the essence and energy of the bustling metropolis, offering listeners a vibrant musical tapestry of the city's many facets.
Judith Lang Zaimont's contributions to the world of composition extend far beyond her early compositions. She has continued to be a prolific composer, leaving a lasting impact on contemporary classical music. "Central Park" serves as a window into her early artistic development, a glimpse of the prodigious talent that would blossom into a lifetime of artistry.
3. Dove in the Window (1970) - Donald Ashwander
"Dove In The Window" by American composer Donald Ashwander is a composition that reflects the unique tapestry of his life experiences and musical journey. Ashwander, whose life spanned from 1929 to 1994, drew inspiration from his deep Southern roots, his immersion in the vibrant New York music scene, and his profound appreciation for the diverse cultures that make up the American landscape. "Dove In The Window" is a shining example of Ashwander's distinctive and thoroughly Americana musical voice.
The title itself, "Dove In The Window," conjures imagery of a peaceful scene, where a dove perches by an open window, bringing with it a sense of serenity and hope. Ashwander's composition captures the essence of this image through its melodic grace and harmonic warmth.
For pianists, the piece offers a rewarding exploration of Ashwander's musical vision. The piece demands a nuanced and expressive performance, with attention to the delicate interplay of melody and harmony. It is a composition that allows performers to connect with the heart of Americana and to convey the depth and richness of Ashwander's musical storytelling.
4. The Alchemist (1987) - Glenn Jenks
"The Alchemist," subtitled "A Ragtime Concoction," is a delightful piano composition by the American composer Glenn Jenks, showcasing his mastery of contemporary ragtime writing. In this piece, Jenks takes us on a journey through the joyful and syncopated world of ragtime, paying homage to the classic ragtime composers of the past, including the illustrious Joseph Lamb.
Ragtime, known for its infectious rhythms and syncopated melodies, reached its zenith during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Glenn Jenks, drawing from this rich tradition, brings the genre into the 21st century with "The Alchemist." The composition is a testament to his ability to capture the essence of ragtime, infusing it with modern flair while paying tribute to the classic ragtime composers who paved the way.
Joseph Lamb, one of the celebrated classic ragtime composers, is known for his poetic and inventive compositions. In "The Alchemist," it's clear that Jenks drew inspiration from Lamb's style, infusing his own unique voice into the genre. The result is a ragtime gem that pays homage to the past while creating something entirely original.
5. Berceuse (1975) - Dana Suesse
"Berceuse" is a lyrical piano composition by the American composer and pianist Dana Suesse. Often referred to as "The Girl Gershwin" during the 1930s, Suesse gained fame for her jazzy and pianistic compositions that resonated with audiences and showcased her remarkable talents.
The term "Berceuse" is derived from the French word for lullaby, and indeed, Suesse's composition carries a gentle and soothing quality that is reminiscent of a lullaby's tender embrace. The music unfolds with a graceful and flowing melody, inviting the listener into a world of tranquility and reflection.
6. Down a Country Lane (1962) - Aaron Copland
"Down a Country Lane" is a serene and pastoral piano composition by the celebrated American composer Aaron Copland. Composed in 1962, this piece was commissioned by Life Magazine, showcasing Copland's ability to create music that reflects the simplicity and beauty of rural life. As one of his later works, "Down a Country Lane" stands as a testament to Copland's enduring talent for crafting music that resonates with both depth and tranquility.
Copland invites the listener on a gentle journey through the idyllic countryside. The music flows gracefully, mirroring the tranquility and reflective nature of rural landscapes. Through delicate melodies and harmonies, Copland paints a vivid sonic picture of a peaceful lane, with all its natural beauty and serenity.
This composition captures the essence of Copland's later style, characterized by its clarity, directness, and a deep connection to American landscapes. It's as if the composer invites us to take a leisurely stroll alongside him, with every note in the piece serving as a musical snapshot of the picturesque surroundings.
7. Swamp-Bird (1941) - Dana Suesse
"Swamp-Bird" is a remarkable and unique piano composition by the American composer Dana Suesse, penned in the year 1941. This piece is a testament to Suesse's imaginative and innovative approach to music, as it ventures into uncharted territory, both in terms of its musical language and its technical demands on the performer. While "Swamp-Bird" does indeed require a degree of finger dexterity and precision, the rewards for those who embark on the journey of mastering this piece are boundless.
One of the most striking features of the piece is its exploration of extended piano techniques. Suesse challenges pianists to push the boundaries of traditional piano playing, calling for creative approaches to fingerwork, dynamics, and articulation. The result is a piece that not only challenges technical skills but also encourages pianists to delve into the depths of their musical imagination.
8. Queen of Violets (1989) - Glenn Jenks
"Queen of Violets" is a beautiful piano composition by the American composer Glenn Jenks, an artist known for his ability to craft music that transcends time and place. This enchanting piece transports listeners to a world of delicate beauty and evocative storytelling, where the piano serves as the canvas upon which Jenks paints a vivid musical portrait.
The title, "Queen of Violets," conjures imagery of regal elegance and vibrant color. The piece unfolds with grace and lyricism, characterized by intricate melodic lines and harmonic richness.
For pianists, the piece offers a rewarding challenge in bringing the composition to life. It demands precision in phrasing and dynamics, allowing performers to convey the nuanced emotions and depth of expression that define the piece.
9. Ragtime Waltz (1994) - Aaron Robinson
"Ragtime Waltz," a solo piano composition by the talented composer Aaron Robinson, is a captivating piece that draws listeners into a world of dissonant harmonies and intricate musical shifts. This composition, characterized by its unique blend of ragtime and waltz elements, is a testament to Robinson's creative exploration of harmonies and his willingness to challenge the conventional boundaries of musical expression.
One of the most striking features of "Ragtime Waltz" is the use of dissonant harmonies. Robinson skillfully incorporates these harmonies to create a sense of tension and intrigue throughout the piece. The juxtaposition of dissonance against moments of resolution adds depth and complexity to the composition, inviting listeners to engage with its rich emotional landscape.
"Ragtime Waltz" is not only notable for its dissonant harmonies but also for its intricate musical structure. The piece gracefully navigates through various key changes, creating a sense of musical exploration and unpredictability. While these shifts may present challenges for the performer, they are integral to the piece's character, making it both demanding and rewarding to play.
10. The Banana Song (2003) - Judith Lang Zaimont
"The Banana Song," composed by the American contemporary classical composer Judith Lang Zaimont, is a delightful and whimsical piece that forms part of her piano suite titled "In My Lunchbox." This charming composition takes the listener on a playful musical journey, capturing the imaginative world of childhood and the joys of a simple yet delightful snack.
The piece is a testament to her ability to infuse classical music with a sense of childlike wonder and innocence. In this piece, she invites us to explore the everyday magic found in a child's lunchbox, where a banana becomes not just a piece of fruit but a source of musical inspiration.
For pianists, "The Banana Song" offers a delightful challenge in capturing the essence of childhood through music. The piece requires precision in rhythm and a keen sense of phrasing to convey the lighthearted and carefree nature of the composition. Zaimont's ability to create a vivid musical narrative allows performers to become storytellers, painting a picture of a child's excitement upon discovering a banana in their lunchbox.
11. Corral Nocturne (1942) - Aaron Copland
"Corral Nocturne" by Aaron Copland is a captivating and quintessentially American composition that emanates the essence of the American West. Originally conceived as a movement from the orchestral suite "Rodeo," the piece gained such popularity that Copland took the initiative to arrange a version for solo piano, ensuring that its melodies could be enjoyed by a wider audience.
Copland invites us to witness the serene beauty of the Western landscape under the moonlit sky. The title itself conjures images of a peaceful ranch, where horses rest after a day's work, and cowhands gather around a campfire, gazing at the stars. This composition is a prime example of Copland's mastery in crafting music that resonates with the spirit of Americana.
The piece's melodies are simple yet profound, reflecting the vastness and grandeur of the American frontier. The open intervals and folk-like themes draw on the rich musical traditions of the West, creating a sense of nostalgia for a bygone era. Copland's use of dissonance and harmonic language adds depth and complexity, capturing the essence of both the rugged and contemplative aspects of Western life.
As with much of Copland's work, the piece showcases his ability to infuse classical music with American folk influences. This fusion creates a sound that is distinctly American, resonating with listeners who are drawn to the country's unique cultural heritage.
12. Forgotten Ballrooms (1983) - Donald Ashwander
"Forgotten Ballrooms," pays tribute to the burgeoning preservation movement in America that has breathed new life into abandoned and historically significant structures. In the not-so-distant past, only a select few possessed the sophistication to recognize the beauty and historical significance of seemingly ordinary places such as derelict railway depots or 1920s filling stations. Today, however, there are people discovering, restoring, and utilizing these architectural gems. This newfound reverence for the past has given rise to a unique breed of enthusiasts who engage in what can only be described as ballroom archaeology.
"Forgotten Ballrooms" takes inspiration from this rarefied and dedicated movement of ballroom archaeologists. Throughout the country, these individuals venture into the hidden corners of history, opening doors to ghostly rooms that resonate with the echoes of bygone dramas and memories long past. As the pianist embarks on this musical journey, they evoke the palpable atmospheres of these once-vibrant spaces, now shrouded in the mists of time.
The compositions syncopated rhythms, playful melodies, and intricate harmonies pay homage to the era when these ballrooms were the centers of social life and entertainment. Yet, there is an underlying sense of nostalgia and longing, as if the music itself yearns to recapture the forgotten stories and dances of the past.
Through Ashwander's musical tribute, we are reminded of the enduring power of history, culture, and the resolute spirit of those who seek to preserve the memories and grandeur of America's forgotten ballrooms.
13. Reflective Rag (1974) - Judith Lang Zaimont
"Reflective Rag," a beautiful composition by the distinguished composer Judith Lang Zaimont, is part of the suite "Two Rags for Solo Piano." Written in 1974, this piece offers a fresh perspective on the traditional ragtime form, pushing its boundaries while embracing a profound sense of reflection and lyrical beauty.
In "Reflective Rag," Judith Lang Zaimont invites us to explore the expressive possibilities of ragtime beyond its traditional confines. While rooted in the syncopated rhythms and melodic intricacies characteristic of the genre, this composition transcends the conventional expectations of ragtime by delving into deeper emotional and reflective realms.
"Reflective Rag" stands as a testament to Judith Lang Zaimont's commitment to artistic innovation. Her ability to infuse new life into a well-established genre showcases her creativity and willingness to stretch the boundaries of musical forms. Through this composition, she invites us to reconsider the possibilities within ragtime and to appreciate its capacity for emotional resonance.
14. Story of Our Town (1944) - Aaron Copland
"The Story of Our Town" is a musical gem composed by the renowned American composer Aaron Copland. This composition, originally written for the screen adaptation of Thornton Wilder's beloved stage play "Our Town," is a poignant reflection on the quiet beauty and timeless simplicity of life in a small New Hampshire town called Grover's Corners. Copland's genius as a composer shines brightly in this work as he masterfully translates the essence of the story into music.
In accepting the invitation to compose the musical score for "Our Town," Copland embarked on a creative journey to encapsulate the heart and soul of this classic American theater piece. He aimed for clarity and purity in his musical language, crafting straightforward harmonies and rhythms that would convey the serenity and sense of security that permeate the story. The result is a composition that resonates with the audience, evoking a deep connection to the characters and their lives.
While the original film score for "Our Town" was written for orchestra, Copland made the thoughtful decision to arrange three excerpts for solo piano, providing a more intimate and introspective interpretation of the music. "The Story of Our Town" is the first of these excerpts and, in its solo piano form, beautifully captures the spirit and serenity of small-town life.
15. Planxty (1993) - Glenn Jenks
A ‘Planxty’ is a musical tribute named after someone. It’s in the old Irish harper tradition and Jenks composed this tune in honor of his friend Jim Stewart. Jenks tells the story of a composer he knew that wrote a “Planxty - Jack Daniels” and sent it off to the distillery. A few weeks later, this composer found a case of Jack Daniels sitting on his doorstep, courtesy of the distillery.
16. Caterpillar Hill (2004) - Aaron Robinson
"Caterpillar Hill," a solo piano composition by the talented Maine composer Aaron Robinson, invites listeners to embark on a musical journey inspired by the picturesque landscapes of Caterpillar Hill in Blue Hill, Maine. This enchanting piece, composed in 2004, captures the essence of the hill's natural beauty and exudes a lovely country/folk quality that resonates with the serene charm of the region.
As listeners embark on this musical journey, they are transported to the tranquil vistas and serene charm of Caterpillar Hill, allowing them to connect with the majesty of nature through the evocative power of music. Robinson's generosity in sharing this composition's manuscript invites us all to experience the beauty and tranquility of Caterpillar Hill, making it a cherished addition to the world of contemporary piano music.
17. Old Streets (1971) - Donald Ashwander
"Old Streets," a captivating piano composition by the American composer Donald Ashwander, takes listeners on a poignant journey through the corridors of memory and nostalgia. American jazz critic Rudi Blesh once remarked about Ashwander's music, stating that he "draws on memory and the unconscious, a remembrance of things past." "Old Streets" embodies this sentiment, offering a musical narrative that transports us to a bygone era, evoking the charm and character of old Southern houses nestled behind ancient trees.
Ashwander not only composes a melody but also paints a vivid musical portrait of a bygone era. Through its enchanting harmonies and evocative phrasing, the piece becomes a vessel for the recollection of cherished memories and the spirit of places long gone.
18. Variations on Shenandoah (1998) - Dick Hyman
"Shenandoah" is a beloved traditional American folk song, steeped in history and nostalgia. It tells the story of a journey along the Shenandoah River and has been passed down through generations, becoming an integral part of American musical heritage. In Hyman's "Variations," this timeless beauty is embraced and celebrated.
In "Variations on Shenandoah," Dick Hyman weaves a symphony of musical variations, each offering a unique perspective on the folk melody. The piece explores the theme from various angles, allowing the listener to experience its depth and versatility. From delicate and introspective moments to grand and sweeping passages, the variations showcase Hyman's mastery of musical storytelling.
19. Midnight in Gramercy Square (1941) - Dana Suesse
"Midnight in Gramercy Square" is a delightful minuet composed by Dana Suesse in 1941. During this period, Suesse was residing in the bustling city of New York, and it is widely believed that the title of the composition references a location near the iconic Gramercy Park in Manhattan. This charming piece transports us to a bygone era, evoking the elegance and grace of a late-night soirée in the heart of the city.
The minuet, a dance form with origins in the 17th century, is known for its moderate tempo and triple meter, and Suesse's "Midnight in Gramercy Square" is a wonderful homage to this tradition. The composition captures the essence of a graceful dance, inviting the listener to imagine couples twirling across a ballroom floor under the soft glow of chandeliers.
One of the distinctive features of the piece is its use of trills, which add a touch of elegance and sophistication. The trills, while requiring precision and control from the pianist, enhance the overall texture of the music, creating a sense of shimmering beauty that mirrors the charm of a moonlit night in the Gramercy Square area.
"Midnight in Gramercy Square" serves as a testament to Dana Suesse's ability to blend classical forms with elements of popular music, a style that earned her recognition during her time. Her music captures the spirit of an era marked by elegance and sophistication, providing a window into the past while remaining timeless in its beauty.
20. Bluet Rag (1997) - Aaron Robinson
"Bluet Rag," a delightful and contemplative piano composition by the talented composer Aaron Robinson, invites listeners on a journey through the enchanting world of traditional ragtime music. In this piece, the piano effortlessly becomes a storyteller, delivering its notes and melodies with beauty, grace and charm.
The mark of quality piano writing is often revealed when a piece feels as though it almost plays itself, allowing the hands and fingers of the pianist to become one with the music. "Bluet Rag" exemplifies this hallmark of exceptional piano composition. Robinson's craftsmanship shines through as the piano effortlessly absorbs the intricate notes and melodies, creating an experience that is both seamless and deeply enjoyable.
21. Carousel Memories (1985) - Dick Hyman
"Carousel Memories" is a captivating piano waltz composed by the versatile musician Dick Hyman for the 1985 Woody Allen film "The Purple Rose of Cairo." Known primarily as one of the world's greatest jazz pianists, Hyman's talent extends beyond performance into the realm of composition, where he crafts melodies that resonate with depth and emotion. This charming piece serves as a testament to his skill in creating evocative and timeless music.
Hyman's composition is both elegant and tender, blending classical sensibilities with a cinematic touch. The piece unfolds like a dream, with each note and chord painting vivid images of characters, settings, and emotions. It is a reminder that music has the ability to transcend time and place, enveloping us in a world of its own creation.