C. Curtis-Smith: Twelve Etudes/Gas!





Twelve Etudes for Piano






the great american symphony








Dennis Russell Davies, conductor








C. Curtis-Smith


C. Curtis-Smith (Curtis O.B. Curtis-Smith), b. 1941 in Walla Walla, Washington, studied at Whitman College with John Ringgold and David Burge; Northwestern University with Alan Stout and Guy Mombaerts; the University of Illinois with Ken Gaburo; and at Tanglewood with Bruno Maderna. He has taught composition at the University of Michigan and is currently Professor of Music at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.


He is the recipient of over 100 grants, awards, and commissions, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood, the Medaglia d'Oro from the Concorso Internazionale di Musica e Danza G. B. Viotti, the Prix du Salabert, an award from the Concorso Internazionale de Composizione, twenty-five consecutive Standard Awards from ASCAP, and grants from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council for the Arts, the Arts Foundation of Michigan, the State of Michigan Governor's Award, and in 2000, a commission from the Barlow Endowment. At Western Michigan University, he was, at age 38, the youngest faculty member ever to be awarded the Distinguished Faculty Scholar Award, the university's highest academic honor.


Leon Fleisher has performed his Concerto for Left Hand and Orchestra on the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's subscription series, (Neemi Jarvi conducting), with the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, and with the American Composers Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. Dennis Russell Davies performed his Great American Symphony (GAS!) twice with the American Composers Orchestra in Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Other GAS! performances by Davies include the Stuttgart Opera Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony, the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, and the West German Radio Orchestra at the Cologne Philharmonic. Recently, Sergiu Luca premiered the Violin Concerto with the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra and later performed the work in Houston.


In 1972, he “invented” the technique of bowing the piano, using flexible bows made of monofilament nylon line. This technique, exemplified in such pieces as Rhapsodies (1973), has been widely imitated and used by many other composers, including George Crumb.


As a pianist, C. Curtis-Smith has appeared as a solo pianist in recitals at the National Gallery and the Phillips Collection in Washington DC. Orchestral appearances include performances with the Indianapolis Symphony, the Seattle Symphony, the Spokane Symphony, and the Kalamazoo Symphony. In 1986, he premiered the last three etudes of William Bolcom's Pulitzer Prize-winning Twelve New Etudes, and Knockstück from Bolcom's Three Dance Portraits. Recently, he and Bolcom wrote a collaborative piece, Collusions, where each composer took turns writing successive phrases of the music.


Twelve Etudes (2000)


Seven of the etudes were premiered by Lori Sims in Alice tully Hall at Lincoln Center on September 16, 2000. New York Times' critic Bernard Holland described Mr. Curtis-Smith as “a careful student of past innovators at the piano” and went on to say:“The textures and movement recall Chopin and Debussy and yet the language is at a distance from their diatonic moorings. This contemporary composer likes dense, brittle chords, chiming ornamentation and is happy to use popular music and jazz as undercurrents. These are interesting pieces.”


In 2001, a set of four of the etudes were included in the repertoire list for the Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.


While indirectly inspired by the etudes of Chopin and Debussy, these pieces are perhaps closer in spirit to Schumann's Kreisleriana, or Carnaval, where the individual pieces are a part of the whole “suite,” and may be motivically and structurally interrelated. Although Twelve Etudes was conceived as a suite of twelve movements, rather than a loose anthology of a dozen pieces, pianists may extract separate etudes from the whole, and devise their own smaller sets. There are numerous motivic and gestural interconnections among the twelve. Often, the ending of one etude will contain the “seed” of the idea for the next. For example, the left hand passacaglia statement which opens Etude II, Singing, is very similar to the wedge-shape gesture which begins Etude I, Chords in Canon. This opening etude, with its “fistfuls” of chords, is one of the more difficult of the set, with the canon at a three-16th-note interval at the beginning, then later, with a sense of urgency, compressed into a single 16th-note interval.


Etude III, Grave, is an etude for violent contrasts of dynamics and touch, and for rapid shifts of register. In certain passages, three widely-separated layers of sound are juggled simultaneously, resulting in orchestral sonorities. The precisely timed use of the damper pedal is crucial in achieving these sonorities, and accordingly, is sometimes notated rhythmically, down to the exact 8th or 16th note.


Etude IV, Elusive, enigmatic, begins with an expanding wedge-shape first suggested in the second etude. This is a study in broken, interlocking tenths, and other widely spaced intervals. Etude V, Free and easy, features a song-like melody played by alternating thumbs, and is an etude in rolled chords. The upward sweeping gesture at the end of this piece prepares for Etude VI, Brooding, ominous. Etude VI exploits the use of the middle (sostenuto) pedal, and is one of the darker etudes of the set.


The last treble note (C-natural) of Etude VI resolves step-wise into the B-flat of Etude VII, Brittle and cocky. Isidor Philipp, along with Hanon, Czerny, et al., is the author of some of the most dreaded piano exercises ever devised. One particularly fiendish one involves holding down a diminished seventh chord with three or four fingers, leaving one finger of each hand free to peck away, chicken-like, at repeated notes. The whole monstrosity is then repeated a half-step higher, and so on, ad absurdum. The moods evoked within the course of the etude are wide ranging, beginning with the directive, “Like a bantam rooster!”, moving on to “Lyrical and flowing,” back to “Strutting!” then to “Mechanical but lusty!” and later to “Wistfully nostalgic,” and “Slyly mischievous.” The expected diminished seventh at the end prepares for the desultory harmonies of Etude VIII.


Etude VIII, Ironic and Etude IX, Brightly flowing, are both etudes for the independence of the hands, and are closely related motivically and gesturally: The dark, erratically capricious, ironic music of Etude VIII is transformed into the bright, lilting music of Etude IX. In both pieces, one hand remains steady, while the other speeds up or slows down. In Etude VIII, this concept is taken to the point where the two hands do not line up vertically on the page. While practicing scales as a young kid, I used to get bored with the standard hands-together technique. So, I tried out other, more interesting ways of playing scales, eventually arriving at the idea of keeping one hand steady, while the other sped up or slowed down against it.


Etude X, Deep, still is a study in ninths and tenths, and other widely spaced sonorities. This, the biggest “slow movement” of the set, is a somber “still point” of the suite, and is followed by the even more remote Etude XI.


In Etude XI, Ghost Etude, fragments of Etude I are recalled imperfectly, and slightly out of focus. The touch required here is appropriately “ghostly” and is, to my knowledge, a novel technique: certain chords, indicated by diamond-shaped notes, are to be pressed down silently to the point of resistance, then played forcefully and energetically, producing an extremely soft and disembodied sound. It is a dreamy and ghostly transformation of Etude I, though the real ghost may not be these sounds, but the muffled chorale which rises pianissimo out of the lower register, only to evaporate into the high register “echoes” of the first etude once again.


The last two etudes have gradually become quieter and more disembodied, and Etude XI has evaporated nearly to the vanishing point. Now Etude XII, beginning pianissimo, but with a “normal” touch, begins to rebuild the sonic edifice little by little, as each repetition of the passacagila increases the sonority and the momentum, culminating near the end of the piece with the strongest fortissimo of the set. This is an etude for wide leaps and sudden skips, focusing on the interval of the sixth. The compound sixths of the opening are later reduced to the simple sixths of the near-quote of Monk's “Criss Cross,” and “Misterioso.” The opening passacaglia statement returns pianissimo at the very end, suggesting a B-flat Italian sixth/dominant seventh sonority, preparing for the return to the E-flat “tonic” of Etude I, and implying a cyclical return to the beginning.


Etude XIII, not recorded here, is a newly composed piece which may be substituted for Etude X. This etude, written for pianists with smaller hands, avoids large stretches, but offers similar effects of widely spaced sonorities.


Above all, these pieces are etudes for touch, sonorities, articulation and pedaling. In several of these etudes, I have asked for what may be a novel suggestion to some: a non-legato cantabile/espressivo touch; indeed, a detached—even a staccato, singing tone. Surely, a singing, expressive line need not be limited to the “traditional” legato touch. Bartok's parlando indication comes to mind, though the non-legato touch of the be-bop pianist may be a better model (appropriately so, as some of my lines owe much to be-bop). And then, there are the melodic passages in Mozart and Chopin marked portato and staccato which might be good models.


This work was supported by funds from the Faculty Research and Creative Activities Support Fund, Western Michigan University. The Etudes are dedicated to my friend, Robert Harvey.


Twelve Etudes are published by Marks Music, New York. GAS! is available on rental from Theodore Presser. The composer may be contacted at 2412 Crest Drive, Kalamazoo, MI 49008. Email:curtissmith@wmich.edu.


The Great American Symphony (GAS!) (1981)


GAS! was commissioned and premiered by Yoshimi Takeda and the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra in 1982, supported by a grant from the Michigan Council for the Arts. The New York premiere was conducted by Dennis Russell Davies with the American Composers Orchestra on the “Great Performers Series” in Avery Fisher Hall, November 6, 1983. Since then, Davies has championed the piece with performances in Stuttgart, Germany, the Cabrillo Music Festival, The Indianapolis Symphony, and the West German Radio Orchestra in Cologne, and most recently, a second performance with the American Composers Orchestra in Carnegie Hall on October 31, 1999.


The audacious title is as mischievous as it is ridiculous, and as American as a slick Madison Avenue advertising slogan (The Great American Spaghetti Factory, et al). There are allusions to sundry aspects of Americana, from New Orleans jazz to acid rock; from gospel harmonies to boisterous marches to quaint southern folk hymns and Broadway show tunes. On one level, the piece may be heard as fun-and-games entertainment, while on another level, it may be heard as an ironic and satirical commentary on the very tunes and styles it purports to trifle with. The piece has certainly enjoyed widely diverse reactions, from those finding it a “masterpiece” to those thinking it a travesty. Ross Lee Finney called GAS! “a controversial piece,” and David Diamond, while finding the title a “happy impertinence,” admitted to lacking “the requisite sense of humour about the title.” Another listener objected to my “irreverent” treatment of the Star Spangled Banner in the last movement. I have never before, nor since, written such a brazen, outlandish, ill-behaved piece—yet GAS! is not malicious; it's more like a clown working things into his act.


The first movement, Kazoo Blues, begins in the low register, in the middle of a phrase, unfolds to quasi-bluesy progressions and ends again in the dark low register, presaging the beginning of the fourth movement.


The second movement is a noisy and rambunctious March, with allusions to “barbershop” harmonies. In the trio, the pungent banjo (the voice of the pullet) twangs its way through the smooth, near-blues string chords. At the very end of the movement, in a three-note banjo solo, the chicken gives voice: “The Chicken Speaks!”


The third movement, Northern Harmony, was inspired by the Southern Harmony tradition. Southern Harmony is a collection of folk hymnody first published in 1835 and still in use today in a few rural southern communities. Called the Sacred Harp tradition, the singing style is very nasal and pungent with the melody in the tenor voice and frequent doubling of parts. The harmonic progressions are often unorthodox with parallel fifths and “wrong” inversions. In Northern Harmony, certain elements of this tradition are evoked and parodied. The pentatonic melody is scored for double reeds and muted trombone to simulate the nasal quality of the Sacred Harp style.


The fourth movement, Dido's Dance, is a phantasmagoria of rock, parodies of Purcell's Dido's Lament, a mock-rock monster waltz, the Dies Irae, and a tightly woven quodlibet on five tunes including I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo, The National Anthem, The Blue Danube, On Top of Old Smoky, and Glory, Glory Hallelujah. All five tunes share the characteristic ascending triad in their initial phrase.


Despite its playfulness, Dido's Dance is psychologically complex. It is funny and fiendish at the same time. While there are musical “jokes,” these jokes conceal ironic motives behind the laughing mask. (Behind the comic mask lurks the Requiem Mass.) In Dido's Dance, I have wedded Purcell and rock. I have always been struck by the uncanny resemblance between Purcell's chaconne bass lines and rock ostinati. The musicologist Paul Nettle, in The Story of Dance Music, says that the Spanish chaconne, which Purcell and other Baroque composers adapted for their own purposes, actually originated in the West Indies. Coincidentally, the Caribbean also contributed some of the rhythms and dances which were to shape early jazz and eventually rock. In Dido's Dance, the five-bar chaconne of Dido's Lament is compressed into a frenzied 15/8 rock pattern. Purcell's lamenting bass is taken into the higher registers and treated melodically (as did, ironically, the earliest 17th century chaconnes).


In the “Great Monster Waltz,” the mocking E-flat clarinet, playing with its bell held high, twists and distorts Purcell's divine melody into a sardonic miscreant. This clumsy waltz is scored for bizarre combinations of instruments with the celeste painting a glassy-eyed glaze over contra bassoon and tuba groans. The monster slowly dies—soothed by the bass clarinet—and from his ashes rises the American eagle (phoenix?) to sing out the National Anthem in combat with the last contorted writhings of the expiring monster.


Dennis Russell Davies


One of the most innovative and adventurous conductors in the classical music world, Dennis Russell Davies has succeeded in challenging and inspiring audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Since 1980 he has lived in Germany but has maintained an active presence on the North American scene as a regular guest conductor with the major orchestras and opera houses of New York, Chicago, and Boston, and as music director of the American Composers Orchestra, with which has has been closely associated since 1975. In the 2000-2001 season, he will become Conductor Laureate. Mr. Davies is currently chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, chief conductor of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, and professor of orchestral conducting at the Salzburg Mozarteum.


Maestro Davies has had successful tenures as the general music director of the City of Bonn (Germany), principal conductor and program director of the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, principal conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and music director of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.


Maestro Davies' repertory is testimony to his commitment to the artistic growth and development of each organization he has led, as well as the living composers with whom he has collaborated. As a pianist, he has recorded C. Curtis-Smith's Sextet for Piano and Winds with the Stuttgart Wind Quintet on Albany Records, Troy 148. This work was commissioned by Davies through the City of Bonn, Germany in 1992.




Twelve Etudes for Piano was recordedDecember 9-10, 2000.


The Great American Symphony (GAS!) was recorded March 4, 1995 at Cologne Philharmonic Hall, Cologne, Germany.


Engineering and Mastering (Etudes): John Stites, Arcadia Recordings


Producer (GAS!): Milena Stawowy - Hechenrieder


Engineer:Peter Eichenseher


Photo of C. Curtis-Smith:D'Elegance, Kalamazoo, Michigan


Cover Design: Bates Miyamoto Design








C. Curtis-Smith


Twelve Etudes


1 Etude I, Playful (Chords in Canon) [2:39]


2 Etude II, Singing (Passacaglia) [3:07]


3 Etude III, Grave [3:49]


4 Etude IV, Elusive, enigmatic [2:58]


5 Etude V, Free and easy [3:05]


6 Etude VI, Brooding, ominous [2:49]


7 Etude VII, Brittle and cocky (Hommage à Isidor Philipp) [3:35]


8 Etude VIII, Ironic [2:47]


9 Etude IX, Brightly flowing [3:08]


10 Etude X, Deep, still [5:00]


11 Etude XI, Furtive, disembodied (Ghost Etude) [2:48]


12 Etude XII, Expansive (Passacaglia) [4:22]


C. Curtis-Smith, piano




Producer &Engineer: John Stites, Arcadia Recording, Kalamazoo, Michigan




The Great American Symphony (GAS!)


13 Kazoo Blues [2:39]


14 March [4:14]


15 Northern Harmony [5:38]


16 Dido's Dance—Dido Dies (Irae) [10:30]


Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra


(Westdeutscher Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester)


Dennis Russell Davies, conductor


Total Time = 63:10


Producer: Milena Stawowy-Hechenrieder


Engineer: Peter Eichenseher






“Curtis Curtis-Smith is one of the best-kept secrets in contemporary music. It is high time that listeners and musicians alike become acquainted with this music of passion and humor, intellectual agility and disarming emotional directness. I have long been its advocate to our best performers, who have played it enthusiastically worldwide, and I envy anyone who is becoming acquainted with it for the first time.”


— William Bolcom