for solo piano (1984)




10 min.

Program Notes

A palindrome is something that is exactly the same forward and backward. (E.g. The phrase “Able was I ere I saw Elba.” is a famous example of a palindromic sentence as the letters are identical forward and backward.)

Palindromes have been a common devise in music for centuries, inspiring great music from Guillaume de Machaut to Anton Webern. In fact, even some more contemporary composers, most notably the recently-deceased Earl Kim, have devoted much of their compositional output to exploring palindromic forms. However, as wonderful as much of this music is, it is almost impossible for most people to hear the palindromes.

One of the chief criticisms of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method is that the majority of listeners and even a good many musicians are unable to discern retrograde (backward) forms of musical phrases and to associate them with the original musical phrases. That the use of retrogrades have been a fundamental part of a musical theory that led to music which aspires to athematicism and moment form, seems somewhat ironic. It seems to me that the desire to explore retrogrades in the most satisfying and musical identifiable way is at cross-purposes with attempts to subvert tonal relationships and thematic development. Rather, the more identifiable the phrase, the more likely listeners should be able to identify it if they hear it in reverse. Strict minimalism seems the best compositional approach.

Hence Palindrome for solo piano, composed in 1984, a completely monophonic work which contains only seven different pitches that remain registrally, rhythmically and dynamically the same throughout. I was an undergraduate at Columbia University in 1984, which was the time when integral serialism was in its final stage of academic ascendancy. The music I wanted to write at the time was diametrically in opposition to the music my professors wanted me to write, or so we all thought at the time. Palindrome is as minimalist and as diatonic as you can be—every pitch of the composition is in the key of Db major (or perhaps Eb Dorian)—yet, as in serialism, no pitch here is ultimately more important than any other and an analysis of the compositional process according to the rules of functional tonality would be completely misguided and incorrect. Although the pitch content is diatonic, there are no resolutions and, ultimately, there is no tonic. Rather the seven pitches hover in space in a realm beyond resolution. In fact, twenty years later, it is quite clear that while the music sounds nothing like serial music, its underpinning structural logic (e.g. permutation, retrograde) belies a similar aesthetic. The overall musical variety eschewed in Palindrome, I hope is replaced by the joy of being able to clearly hear a palindrome emerge from hearing a short melodic cell expand and contract over time.

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is a composer and music journalist based in New York City whose syncretic compositional style has been described as “distinctive” in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. His compositions include: Fair and Balanced, a saxophone quartet in quartertones premiered and recorded by the PRISM Quartet; Imagined Overtures, for rock band in sixth-tones recorded by the Los Angeles Electric 8; Love Games, settings of poems by Elizabethan sonneteer Mary Wroth premiered at SubCulture by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City conducted by Francisco Núñez; and Versions of the Truth, a 12-song cycle based on the poetry of Stephen Crane for dual-voiced singer and piano commissioned by the ASCAP Foundation Charles Kingsford Fund and premiered by Phillip Cheah and Trudy Chan (The Cheah Chan Duo). MACHUNAS, Oteri’s performance oratorio created in collaboration with Lucio Pozzi and inspired by the life of Fluxus-founder George Maciunas, premiered under the direction of Donatas Katkus during the Christopher Festival in Vilnius, Lithuania in 2005. Other interpreters of his music include pianist Sarah Cahill, harpsichordist Rebecca Pechefsky, guitarists Dominic Frasca and David Starobin, the Ray-Kallay Duo, Pentasonic Winds, Sylvan Winds, Magellan String Quartet, the Locrian Chamber Players, and Central City Chorus. In addition to his compositional activities, Oteri is the composer advocate at New Music USA and the co-editor of NewMusicBox, a web magazine he founded which has been online since May 1999. An outspoken crusader for new music and the breaking down of barriers between genres, he has written for numerous publications and is also a frequent radio guest and pre-concert speaker. Oteri is a graduate of the High School of Music and Art and holds a B.A. and an M.A. (in Ethnomusicology) from Columbia University where he served as Classical Music Director and World Music Director for WKCR-FM. In 2007, he was the recipient of ASCAP’s Victor Herbert Award.

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