originally published in Limelight Magazine
When I tell people I can't play the piano, they usually don't believe me. They say, “But how do you compose?”
The question assumes that playing the piano and composing are more or less the same activity, as though we composers have imagination in our fingers. In fact what we have in our fingers is something like recovered memory, the physical memory of the pieces we have played. Many composers play the piano rather well, and some of them also compose at the keyboard. If they are not vigilant, the memory in their fingers can interfere with their imaginations, so that fragments of the piano repertoire begin to turn up in their music. In my case, this is not a serious danger. So impoverished in my playing technique that I risk rediscovering the odd bar from from a Grade 3 piece and not very much more. Until recently, even that was unlikely.
For 23 years—in fact from the day I went to university until my 41 st birthday—I didn't live with a piano. The business of composing took place in my head. Composers become practised at hearing the details of their music in their heads and writing it straight on to paper. There is nothing particularly mysterious about this: it is like any other skill. Very occasionally, I would seek out an instrument. I remember doing this once when I was beginning work on a piano concerto. I found a piano at Wollongong University where at the time I was teaching, and I sat there playing the first chord over and over again. This chord was to be played by the soloist and it was to be the first sound in the piece—an arresting sound, I hoped—so perhaps I needed to be sure it would have the right physical effect. Whatever the reason for my obsession over the first chord, I composed the remaining 25 minutes of the piece without further recourse to the instrument, and it was years before I went near a piano again. But then something changed. It was a bit like a mid-life crisis, except that it wasn't another woman I met, but a rather cute baby grand.
In late 1997 I was fortunate to be awarded a Peggy Glanville-Hicks fellowship. This allows you to live rent-free in the late composer's home in a leafy street in Sydney's Paddington. I moved into the house the following March, and immediately found myself in the company of the aforementioned instrument. I set up my composing table alongside it—just because it was the most convenient space in the house—and got on with writing music. For the first few weeks, the piano lid remained closed. I finished the piece I was writing—a viola concerto based on an English folk song, “The Unquiet Grave”—and, for reasons I still can't explain, decided I should play the final couple of pages over on the piano. At the end of this piece, the soloist finally settles down to play the folk song melody itself, the accompanying chamber orchestra is playing rather simple chords, and everything is moving at a snail's pace. So, even considering my modest keyboard abilities, I was able to play over the music without hitting too many wrong notes.
It was a strangely emotional experience. I remember being surprised to find myself weeping. The music is quite sad, I suppose, but I don't think that had much to do with it. To be honest, I still don't really know what was going on, but it was such a powerful experience, that I found myself back at the piano the next day. And on it went, month after month. I'd take the music I had written to the piano and—slowly, falteringly—play it over. The weeping dropped off, I'm pleased to relate, but my need for the piano grew. After nearly two years of sharing the house with this instrument, I had become utterly dependent on it. Not only was I checking my work at the keyboard, I increasingly found myself sitting at the piano to compose.
In early 2000 it was someone else's turn for the Peggy Glanville-Hicks house. I moved to a house I'd bought in the NSW Southern Highlands. It was a house without a piano, and I quickly realised that this was going to be a problem. Two years with the baby grand had done some very odd things to my ear. I could no longer work without an instrument.
These days I am devoted to a little Japanese upright. I recently composed an hour-long piece for solo piano, of which I can play (though not very convincingly) maybe five or six minutes. What's certain, though, is that none of the music would have been written without an instrument at my disposal.
© Andrew Ford 2004