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Classical Notes

In his eclectic repertoire: études with attitude

David Rakowski’s latest work is premiering at tonight’s Boston Musica Viva concert. David Rakowski’s latest work is premiering at tonight’s Boston Musica Viva concert. (Aram Boghosian for The Globe
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By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / November 20, 2009

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On his home page, composer David Rakowski lists some of the adjectives that have been applied to his music: pretty, opaque, accessible, unremarkable, total rockout, borderline Neoclassical, zany, too melodic, not melodic enough, postmodern, eclectic, and highly unified. If that doesn’t make you curious to hear what the man writes, you’re just not curious.

“Yeah, I love putting the contradictory things right next to each other,’’ says Rakowski, whose latest work is premiering at tonight’s Boston Musica Viva concert. But beyond the fun of juxtapositions, the labels don’t mean much to him. “I don’t care what people say as long as they have some kind of reaction.’’

At the risk of adding to the pile, two descriptors seem important: wit and complexity. Rakowski is a laid-back, slightly geeky, funny guy who writes some very difficult music. Or, as he puts it on the home page, music that has “lots and lotsa notes.’’ Take the new piece, “Mikronomicon,’’ written for BMV and pianist Geoffrey Burleson. It’s a piece that “has tons and tons of notes for Geoff,’’ says Rakowski. “But that’s because I know his playing style and I know he can play them.’’ The jazz-based gestures that open and close the piece contrast with a middle section that the composer cheerfully calls “angry modern music.’’

On the other hand, the title came from joining “microconcerto’’ (a concerto for a small ensemble) with “necronomicon,’’ a book of spells that features prominently in the horror film “Army of Darkness,’’ of which Rakowski is a big fan. And how many chamber concertos have a duet for the melodica, an accordion-like instrument that Wikipedia calls a “blow-organ’’?

“I really didn’t want to write this piece because I’m tired of the ‘Pierrot’ ensemble,’’ he admits, referring to the lineup of instruments descended from Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire.’’ “And in order to make it interesting for me I had to come up with something weird.’’

And so he did. “These melodicas - they’re really kind of cool.’’ (Note that this statement is open to dispute by anyone who’s heard a melodica play “Tequila’’ or “Smoke on the Water.’’) “What if I make Geoff play the melodica? Oh, what the heck, I’ll make [percussionist] Bob Schulz play one too. They can have dueling melodicas.’’

Rakowski’s sense of humor is even more apparent in his piano études, of which he has so far written 93. The pianist Amy Briggs is in the process of recording all of them; a third volume has just been released on Bridge Records. As the word suggests, they are vehicles for building and displaying technique, and Rakowski’s can be punishingly difficult to play.

But they also have droll, pun-heavy titles like “Triaddled,’’ “Menage a Droit,’’ and “You’ve Got Scale.’’ “I like the titles because they’re disarming,’’ he says. “It’s really hard music but, at least if you’re playing a piece called ‘A Third in the Hand’ or ‘A Gliss Is Just a Gliss’ you think, well, here’s someone with a sense of humor and this might be something worth trying out.’’

Rakowski never planned to add so many works to such an artistically suspect genre. He wrote the first étude, “E-Machines,’’ in 1988, more or less on a challenge from his then-roommate. “That turned out to be a fun piece and people actually liked it even though I thought it was worthless at the time. Well, I don’t know about worthless but certainly useless.’’

Soon other pianists began asking for more; so did the publisher C.F. Peters. “And I would just write them as technique builders in between pieces or when I was stuck on a big piece I would write a little étude and then come back to the big piece refreshed. It usually kind of worked.’’

Now there are pieces in funk and stride-piano styles (“Absofunkinlutely’’ and “Strident’’), and études to develop pedaling (“Pedal to the Metal’’), accents (“Accents of Malice’’) and octaves (“Eight Misbehavin’ ’’). Many originated with Rakowski’s friends; the writer Rick Moody suggested he compose a prog-rock étude (“Prog Springs Eternal’’).

“And the only thing I could think of,’’ he explains, “since there are so many things in prog rock, is that it has to seem a lot longer than it actually is.’’

Each étude must be written from start to finish without revision, and must take a maximum of six days to finish. And he plans to quit when he reaches 100. “I like the idea of putting closure on a project so that I can say that’s done. And seriously, it seems silly to be playing an Étude No. 101. Sounds more like a highway than an étude.’’

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