Writing for piano (and destroying the universe)

Scott McIntyre writes for Michael Kieran Harvey



As I start work on my Piano Sonata No.4, I pause and think about the creation of these works and the small amount of success they have brought me to date. For one thing, at my writing desk, there is not a piano in sight, nor is there one in the house. Although I don’t play piano now, it was the instrument that started my musical journey. Piano and theory lessons at the age of five made an indelible mark and shaped my future path.

I am, however, lucky to have an extraordinary collaborator to help shape these piano works. I’m not sure if I can use the word ‘collaborate’ to describe the first time Michael Kieran Harvey and I worked together. I submitted to a call for scores for piano and trombone works, hosted by the Melbourne Composers’ League in 2009, and Michael happened to be the pianist. We had a performance in the Iwaki Auditorium in Melbourne on 21 August 2009 and the next performance was the very next night, right here in this recital hall. Michael must have liked my piece as he suggested we work together on something in the future.

After three months, I sent him my first sonata for solo piano, Vacuum Metastabilty Event, which was a concept piece about the nature of the physical makeup and subsequent destruction of the entire universe. I thought I would start small! I was most impressed by Michael’s performance of a Brendan Colbert’s Quicksand, which I had seen him perform at the MCL concert; it had an astonishingly violent section near the middle and it was then I realised how physical Michael could be in order to perform this work. I wanted to capture this physicality myself and, I think, wrote a work that truly challenged him.

This 20-minute monster went from the very loud (the loudest I could try to get Michael to play) to end with 30 seconds of silence. I wished to depict the universe as the entire scope of the keyboard. As the universe (the piece) ages and entropy begins to pick away at the structure, the musical material coalesces towards the middle and finally the universe sputters to a stop, getting quieter and quieter as all of the stars and galaxies wink out of existence.

michael kieran harvey by toby frost
Michael Kieran Harvey playing Scott’s McIntyre’s composition.

My next work for Michael would be a piano concerto with chamber orchestra written for my PhD candidature. This work based on Beethoven’s fourth concerto is due to be performed later this year. Again this work explores the physicality of Michael’s technique but within a more Beethovian model, replete with gestures and figures from his work.

The collection of short stories by Louis Jorge Borges, A Universal History of Infamy, published in the 1930s in an Argentine newspaper, summed an appropriate study for a new piano work; and, like its predecessor Vacuum Metastabilty Event, again would be a collection of movements played without pause. Vacuum Metastabilty Event is made up of 10 distinct musical sections, UHoI comprises of 14 sections. These sections, however, are hidden and not as apparent in the previous work. Some sections are quite clear but others have been deliberately masked and sewn together. This was to be my Piano Sonata No.2 and it would look inwards rather than out; the scope of the universe would be replaced with an intimate journey delving into a series of character portraits on a personal level.

This piece surprised me during the writing process. It was more confident in its piano writing techniques and often on playback I was not sure that I had even written it. However, the thing that surprised me with this piece is that I managed to win the 2014 Jean Bogan Piano Composition Prize with it! Me – and I don’t even play piano! This piece took about six months to write; we sit at home and work on these objects alone for so long and then we turn them out into the world to see where they end up. I could not have expected this result, and it’s not the reason I write but this type of validation helped me continue down the path of further piano writing.

Michael commissioned me to write a third sonata, which was finished earlier this year, and the prospect at continuing this path I now find quite exciting. As a composer who does not play the piano, I can find writing for the piano quite tricky. I always have to remember to think about the span of chords, the length of the keyboard and the dexterity required across the five feet of keys. The other problems I have are the sonorities available to me as a composer. Don’t get me wrong; the different sounds on the piano are varied and wide but limited nonetheless, say, compared to an orchestra or wind quintet. I always try to look for that point of difference I can include to write something unique. It is possible that is the reason I waited until my fourth decade to write for the instrument. The inclusion of the piece of wood in my Piano Sonata No.2 helped me with this, although Charles Ives had beaten me to this a century earlier; another way was the inclusion of harmonics on the strings. Many pieces for prepared piano involve the preparation of strings with small metallic objects on the strings internally but this is not always practical, nor on occasion, allowed! George Crumb includes the use of fifth partial harmonics in many of his pieces, particularly at the beginning of Echoes of Time and the River. This technique involves touching the piano string (inside) approximately at the fifth node whilst depressing the key for that note at the same time. If all goes according to plan, a note major third above the depressed key should sound as an overtone.

So work on my fifth piano work progresses and I have no idea where this 88-keyed journey will end up, but that’s half the fun. It’s not so much the destination but how you get there – and at least I have some music to accompany the ride.


Scott McIntyre is a CutCommon mentor. If you’d like a one-on-one session with him to learn composition or music theory, you can find out more on our Skype Mentor page.

Composer Scott McIntyre


Michael Kieran Harvey photographed by Toby Frost. Featured image credit Alexanderward12 via Flickr CC2.0.

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