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Did I really write all this crazy hard stuff?!

Today I finally got a chance to actually sit down at the piano (well, an electronic one, but still) and try to play my fugue in C# minor myself for the first time. And I was greatly dismayed to discover that I couldn't play it at all... What sounded relatively tame in midi turned out to be extremely difficult for me to play.  That's probably a sign of how lousy my non-existent piano skills are, or perhaps fugues are just hard to play, period. I struggled just to even hit the right notes (nevermind getting the rhythms right, and don't even mention at tempo), and afterwards was left wondering to myself, Did I really write all this crazy-hard stuff?!!

In contrast, the 201 bars of my fantasia-sonata in G minor were no problem at all... mainly because it was primarily composed at the piano. :-P  (Well, OK, I still struggled with the articulation of some passages, but it's miles ahead of my disappointing attempts to play my own fugue.)  Which makes me wonder about how my fugues would have turned out if I had composed them at the piano rather than on the computer... and whether our contemporary generation of computer-based composers are churning out stuff that's unnecessarily hard to perform just because the difficulty is all but lost to us, no thanks to the prowess of technology.

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Comment by H. S. Teoh on January 8, 2017 at 8:06pm

@David: I know, "crazy hard" doesn't really apply to my fugue in C#m as far as your average concert pianist is concerned.  It's crazy hard to me, but that only shows how weak my piano skills actually are. :-P

Real "crazy hard" would be like Liszt's Transcendental Etudes, I suppose.  Especially the ones that require huge leaps and extremely fast runs at soft dynamics, like certain passages in Chasse-neige (no.12).

Comment by David Lilly on January 7, 2017 at 3:45pm

Hi HS Teoh - 

I think you are under estimating the persistence of some piano players. Basically, if it is physically possible to play, we will find a way. 

The Sonata's first movement you shared with me, and the Fugues I've seen would actually be a fairly simple sight read, albeit maybe at a slower tempo, for an 'advanced' player. Not a whole lot of 

Most of the material I've listened to that you've composed I'd consider at a level 4 Intermediate level. It is not what us piano players would consider "Crazy Hard." 

What does crazy hard look like? 

Things start to get harder for us to sight read when there are different rhythms in the hands that are not traditional melody / accompaniment patterns. Also, certain chords are easier to identify to us piano players than others. Most of the chords that are common or easy to identify include the relative major / minor chords in the key signature in all their inversions, which seem to be common in your piano music. Things get harder (for sight reading) when there are chords which contain accidentals unusual for the key signature, and of course, the more notes that are in the chord. Large clusters may require the thumb to play two keys, or sometimes we need to figure out an appropriate fingering pattern for more complex runs, chord progressions, etc.

 In your piece above, The left hand stays relatively in the same range (requiring less movement or 'jumps') and is following very familiar chords in the key of C minor. There are some accidentals, but ones we'd typically expect to find in C minor (B natural and F#). Rhythmically, while the hands are not 'in sync', the left hand pattern is quite common and easy to decipher. 

Comment by H. S. Teoh on January 5, 2017 at 10:20pm

Mike: That's probably an indication of my basically non-existent sight-reading skills. ;-)   My piano playing is actually probably passable (well, it sounds convincing enough to the layperson, though a professional pianist would probably laugh me off the stage), but one of the great disadvantages of having never had formal music education is that my sight-reading is extremely poor. It's gotten better over the years, but it's still nowhere near functional. I can perhaps sight-read a single melody line if the rhythm isn't overly complex, but anything beyond that is too much for me to play at tempo.  I can improvise up a storm, though. :-P

As for the fugue itself, I understand that you see it differently from how I do, i.e., at a much faster tempo than I envisioned. I'm glad you found something to like about it in spite of my tempo indication. :-P  I'd even admit your interpretation as a valid one, even if I wouldn't play at 90bpm if it were up to me.  The whole reason I tried playing it myself was because I wanted to record it, esp. the emotional element I'd impart into the playing, that's completely missing from the midi rendering.  I suppose, given my lousy sight-reading skills, I'll just have to practice it more and play it from memory -- I can usually do a half-decent job at a piece if I play from memory rather than squint at the score while trying to reach for the right notes. (The only challenge is whether I'll actually have time to do this -- having a 9-month-old baby isn't exactly conducive to having lots of spare time for piano practice! :-P)

Comment by Ingo Lee on January 5, 2017 at 10:03am

Messiaen rocks! 

Yeah, computers are seductive and dangerous but the potential is limitless and exciting and for better or worse progress is inevitable, I say go with it, if people can perform Ferneyhough performer potential is limitless too!

Comment by Mike Hewer on January 5, 2017 at 9:33am

HS, it's not hard to play (it's sight readable at your tempo) and is nowhere near crazy hard stuff! See Messiaens' fugue in the Vingt Regard for crazy (but genius) hard stuff.

Only people who do not know what they are doing will compose impossible music, which is a dead give away. They are the ones who will succumb to the 'virtuosity' of a computer. Here's a thought - maybe your fugue would have turned out worse if you composed at the piano because of your admitted lack of keyboard skills.

Had another listen to it BTW and enjoyed it's craftmanship, but  not its' tempo....:-)

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