Player Piano

for singing actor and piano 4-hands; 5′ (2002)
poetry: Randall Jarrell
(commissioned by William Farlow)

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composer’s note:

Randall Jarrell’s “Player Piano” is an very personal poem, but also one that deals in nostalgia. It makes reference to player piano music he heard in his childhood, a fragment of an old parlor song, a Chopin waltz heard in the distance. In setting Jarrell’s poem as a dramatic scene, I incorporated mechanical ragtime-esque music of the sort that might have been recorded on old piano rolls. I listened to the parlor song referenced by Jarrell once, then wrote down my memory of it a week later, creating a sort of hazy half-remembered version of the song to match the narrator’s hazy memory. I incorporated a bit of Chopin, deconstructing it into a lingering shadow of Chopin’s more full-blooded version.

Chase_&_Baker_player_piano,_Buffalo,_NY,_circa_1885After weaving all these sources together, the actor mostly delivers his monologue above them by speaking, sometimes in rhythm with the music as things become more involved, sometimes just as narration on top of the music. And then at a few crucial moments, when the emotional content becomes especially intense, the actor bursts into song, joining the piano in its most expressive moments. In this way, “Player Piano” is full of nostalgic remembrances, half-forgotten bits of song woven together into a kind of sonic quilt; but also, Jarrell’s text is beautifully dramatic and intense, and the singing actor uses that sonic quilt as a backdrop for a breathtaking emotional journey.

sample page:
Player Piano