To imbue nuanced atmosphere so skillfully into what is really a brilliant study of dynamics and chordal structures, one needs to be part musician, part teacher and part painter. That is not a tall order for songwriter and pianist Jeremy Siskind. In his latest release “Perpetual Motion Etudes for Piano,” he takes us from the rolling echoes of a “Brooklyn Sunset” to the darker, moodier “Floating” to the delicately uplifting “Temple Bells.” This album glows and shimmers and proves that the creative well upon which Siskind draws is bottomless.
Your etudes have a strong classical component. How do you compose in a way that incorporates jazz elements, or is that done in an improv kind of way, as you go, and not the same each it’s time played?
Yes, that was one of the big challenges of this project! In this case, some sections were through-composed, meaning every single note was written out, and some sections were improvised. Because the through-composed etudes were written to be particularly dense, it was difficult to figure out how to improvise with ample freedom without it feeling like the bottom was completely dropping out of the music.
Each piece ended up with a different strategy for improvisation. With some, like “Van Gogh’s Dream,” I tried to blur the line between the written and the improvised. With others, like Piccadilly Circus, I stopped the piece and restarted with an improvisation in a different mood. I had to practice improvising at the piano in ways far beyond the normal right hand plays the melody, left hand plays the chords paradigm, so I trained intensely not just to play the written material, but to learn how to improvise in ways that complemented the written materials.
Did you have to pivot in offering your in-home concerts?
I actually was going to premier the etudes in a variety of venues, ranging from Carnegie Hall to house concerts alongside Grammy-winning classical pianist Angelin Chang. I decided to do a fun concert in my house on the night we were supposed to play at Carnegie. I played lullabies in my pajamas. For me, that’s the ultimate “in-home concert”!
Are you working on any musicals now, as referenced in our earlier interview?
These etudes have been my big project for the last year or so, but musicals have been in my thoughts during our shelter-in-place era. I can’t remember when we last talked, but I was able to premiere a musical called “Unfriended” in Kalamazoo around 2016. A playwright took a set my songs as well as some that I wrote collaboratively with Lucas Pino, and wove a story through them to create the musical. It was pretty successful, but only had a couple of performances in Kalamazoo. I’m always looking to create a revival if anyone out there is interested!
With song titles that reference visuals like sunsets and enchanted forests, how do you achieve creating a mood piece that will allow the imagination to fill things in, rather than a very literal type of music that comes at you hard?
Sometimes the image precedes the music and sometimes the music precedes the image. I like writing lyrics because I can help guide audiences towards certain emotional directions, but for instrumental music, titles are the next best thing. The title “Van Gogh’s Dream” was actually a suggestion from an audience member who heard the piece before it was titled. It fit so beautifully because the music was swirling like Van Gogh’s clouds and starry nights. I actually have a poster from the Van Gogh museum in the room where I compose, so it fit like a glove. When I play that piece, I imagine it setting the scene for an old European city with cobblestone streets on an overcast or rainy day.
The image for “Homesick” is a little more specific. The piece features two pairs of melodies – one pair moves in parallel motion, the other moves in contrary motion. The parallel lines represent following in tradition, maybe in your parents’ footprints, sticking close to comfort. The contrary lines represent venturing out of one’s comfort zone. For me, I’m aiming to find balance of both in my life, but the two sets of lines will always be divergent. We can just hope that they’re complementary, as they often are in the piece!
Compare the different headspace you are in with solo vs. ensemble playing.
I’m an introvert, so solo piano makes a lot of sense to me. I like being in control, and I also like the amount of adventure and exploration possible when playing by yourself! I don’t have to wait for anybody’s approval when I take an unplanned excursion playing solo piano. I also just love the piano – I love classical music written for the piano, I love pop pianists…I love one person trying to capture the possibilities and stretch the limitations of the instrument.
Of course, the difficulty of solo piano is that you have to supply all of the inspiration, all of the creativity, all of the rhythm, and all of the color. It’s a big responsibility and a big drain of energy! After playing solo piano, it’s really quite a relief to play in a group setting where you can feed off of the energy and ideas of the other musicians.
Best part of producing this CD?
These are etudes, which means that they’re pieces meant to teach a lesson. Learning them to the point where I felt comfortable recording them pushed me to grow a lot as a pianist. Additionally, I published a book of the etudes so that I can share these musical challenges with pianists and students everywhere. It’s very rewarding to hear other pianists’ interpretations. It’s amazing how often they play the music in a certain way and I think “I wish I’d thought of that!” With the interpretations of others, the pieces aren’t a static thing, but something that’s forever expanding and changing.
What do you hope listeners take from this new project?
Even though there’s a technical side to the music, I hope it transports them. I hope that each piece sets a specific mood and that they listener is able to go on a journey with the improvisation. I view these pieces as a celebration of the possibilities of the piano, so I hope that listeners gain a new appreciation of the piano as well!
I have another album coming out this summer called “Impressions of Debussy” in which I perform improvisatory interpretations of Debussy preludes with saxophonist Andrew Rathbun.
For more information visit www.jeremysiskind.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Jeremy Siskind. Top photo (c) Lauren Desberg.
© Debbie Burke 2020