Comments about the musical works by Kirk Whipple & Marilyn Morales
Track 1: The Star Spangled Banner / A Prayer For Peace (Francis Scott Key / Whipple & Morales)
Quick facts: Performed at two pianos. Marilyn plays piano prepared with chain. Both pianists mute piano strings with fingers. We improvise in this piece. Galactic premier: Gala For Two Pianos 2001, Miami, Florida.
This piece was our artistic response to the events of September 11th, 2001. Having had a busy concert schedule during the fall of 2001 and new year of 2002, and knowing that there would be a great need for people to publicly address this tragedy, we began to think about the kind of arrangement we wanted that would express our own sense of grief and exasperation but that would also leave our audiences with a feeling of hope and resilience. After great discussion and some improvising together we decided that a serious adaptation of The Star Spangled Banner might be just what we were looking for.
There are two "prepared piano" techniques that are quite unusual in this arrangement. The ostinato in the beginning and end of the piece, which resembles a pizzicato (or "plucked") bass, is produced by pressing two or three fingers of one hand onto the string(s) inside the piano while the other hand plays the appropriate key(s). The fine chain laid over the treble strings on Marilyns piano produces a very unsettling metallic sound on the main melody throughout the piece. We both run our fingers directly over the strings to produce the eerie effect heard at the end of the piece.
There is a great deal of improvisation in this piece; each time we perform it in public it is slightly (or sometimes very) different. The use of improvisation in this and other pieces adds an element of chance and excitement for both performer and audience that does not occur in works composed note for note from beginning to end.
We were both very moved to have the honor of performing The Star Spangled Banner / A Prayer For Peace at the Kennedy Center in our nations capital. This one-hour concert that we gave on March 6th, 2002 can be viewed by visiting the following link:
The software "RealPlayer" is required to view this and other performances from the Kennedy Center Archives. It is available to be downloaded for free at: www.real.com.
Track 2: Rhapsody in Blue (George Gershwin / Henry Levine / Whipple & Morales)
Quick facts: Performed at one piano/four hands: We further adapted Henry Levines arrangement. Use of maracas or "eggz" shakers.
There are several different instrumentations for this piece: piano and jazz band (the original setting), piano and orchestra, solo piano, two pianos and, of course, one piano/four hands. Levines arrangement is pretty faithful to the notes in Gershwins original score, but we found it to be lacking in certain pianistic qualities. For example, there are several places in Levines arrangement where there is only one single voice in the melody over some very thick accompaniment. The pianists have basically three choices: 1. Play all of the background parts a lot softer, 2. Pound the melody and hope for enough sound on top, or 3. (our solution in several cases) double the melody in other octaves. We took the liberty of adding melodic, rhythmic and chordal textures where we felt it would help to get closer to the heart of Gershwins original musical and orchestral ideas. We feel that our arrangement is not only more expressive because of our changes, but it is also more "performer-friendly" than Levines arrangement. Credit where it is due, though Mr. Levine saved us an awful lot of work, and we are forever in his musical debt!
Our use of maracas or "eggz" shakers in this piece came as a whim. Kirk: "I play the solo cadenza that happens almost at the end of the piece. We were practicing this section one day, when Marilyn, as a joke, picked up two nearby "eggz" shakers and began to dance around the piano, accompanying me with them. We both had so much fun that we decided to share our eggz with some of our audiences and they enjoyed the surprise!" Musical purists take note: This impromptu instrumental addition is not without precedent. The clarinet trill and scale that introduces the piece was not originally conceived by Gershwin. Rather the clarinet soloist played it as a joke, Gershwin liked it and thus it became one of the most famous introductions in musical history.
One of the hardest things about performing this piece as a duo is the treatment of the numerous changes of time. Gershwin used ritards (slowing down) and accelerandos (speeding up) to great effect, enhancing the "jazzy" nature of this piece. There is a certain freedom that the soloist has in the version for piano and orchestra that a duo piano team can not afford. A piano soloist can, from concert to concert, take slight rhythmic liberties (rubato) that do not have to be planned with the conductor or orchestra. By comparison, both of the players in a piano duo need to plan most of their "liberties" if they are both playing together in rubato sections. Either player can easily miscue the other.
Speaking of rhythm, there is a common misconception about the basic pulse or feel of this piece. Many classical trained pianists make the mistake of assuming that the jazzy phrases in this piece should be "swung," or played with a "long-short long-short" rhythmic feel (that is correctly played in our performances of Nola and The Original Boogie Woogie). The sub-beats, i.e. "1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and" throughout Rhapsody in Blue should be played evenly, with the same amount of time given to each sub-beat.
While there are many pieces in the piano duet repertoire that are physically more difficult to play than Rhapsody in Blue, the rhythms and other stylistic challenges will force any duo piano team to work hard and think very carefully about their interpretation of this great musical work.
Track 3: Nola (Felix Arndt / Whipple & Morales)
Quick facts: Performed at one piano / four hands. Hand drumming on the music desk imitates a "soft shoe" dancer. Pianists switch parts twice during this piece.
We actually run around the piano bench and switch parts twice during this piece. Marilyn: "To me this is such a fun piece to perform! I love to play it because we get to have fun with the audience." Listen for the moment in the piece where we both substitute finger snaps for one of the chords.
Our engineer, Paul Griffith, had a good time watching us record Nola. After we finished running through the piece the first time, he said he was confused for a moment. Paul: "When the piece began, Kirk was on the top part. I looked down at the console in the sound booth to check the levels, and then Marilyn was on the top part! I thought my memory was failing me! Then I saw Marilyn run around the piano bench again!" We all had a good laugh after that take. In the recording we took our shoes off so that we would not make any noise running around the piano bench.
Track 4: (Not So) Simple Gifts (Traditional: "Simple Gifts" / Prokofiev / Whipple)
Quick facts: Performed at two pianos. Kirk improvises throughout the development section. Galactic premier: The wedding of Ken Blacklock and Katy Bridges, October 12th, 1996.
Kirk: "Aaron Coplands famous orchestration of Simple Gifts was an inspiration to me. His richly textured and warm arrangement of this straightforward folk tune is a noble picture of grace. I was asked by my best friend, Ken Blacklock not only to be the best man at his wedding, but to play an arrangement of Simple Gifts, the piece that he and fiancé Katy wanted for their processional. When it appeared that there would probably be only one piano at the wedding, I thought about doing a simple and tasteful arrangement. That all changed with the largesse of Ann Cedarholm, owner of The Ivory Palace in Ukiah, California."
"Ken had called The Ivory Palace to provide a piano for the wedding, which was to be held at Scharffenberger Winery in Philo, about two hours away from Ukiah. Ms. Cedarholm, who had heard Marilyn and I perform at a trade show in Northern California, gave Ken a deal of the century: she decided to move two grand pianos to the wedding for the price of one upright piano! Since we had a few weeks to prepare for the wedding, Marilyn and I decided to do something special. This arrangement was it. We also played some other pieces at two pianos before the wedding, including A Wedding Sonata for Two Pianos by W. A. Mathieu, a piece we premiered at our own wedding in 1992."
"I wrote the ostinato line that continues on and off through the piece. My improvisation in the middle section of the piece makes each performance a little (or sometimes very) different. I lifted the big build-up before the return of the main theme from Piano Concerto #3, Opus 26, by Sergei Prokofiev. In Ken and Katys wedding I started the piece, and Marilyn finished. This allowed me a few bars at the end of the piece to walk off the stage and join get to Kens side for the ceremony."
Track 5: Solace
Quick facts: Performed at one piano / four hands. Full title: Solace, A Mexican Serenade.
The day of the recording was the first time we played it for anyone else. So, the world premier of our arrangement of this piece was during the recording session.
This piece is very different than any of Joplins other rags or waltzes. We feel that it occupies a very special place in piano literature. Marilyn: "I fell in love with Solace when I saw the movie The Sting. I think Joplin is as melodious in this piece as were any of Chopins Nocturnes."
The structure of the sections in this piece is like many Joplin pieces. If a new letter was assigned to each new section of music, the sequence would be: A A B B A C C D D. Joplins original scoring is heard with little or no changes in the first appearance of each section. To develop the piece and to take advantage of the potential of the ensemble setting, we added texturing and ornamentation on the repeated sections. Listen to the subtle differences on the repeats.
Track 6: The Easy Winners (Scott Joplin / Whipple & Morales)
Quick facts: Performed at one piano / four hands. Lowest "A" string on the piano was detuned one half step.
Give a good listen to the rhythmic feel of this piece! The infectious bounce of this and Joplins other rags are not found in classical music pre-dating the Ragtime Era .
Easy Winners has Joplins familiar structure: A A B B A C C D D. This is a good point to take note of the difference between our arrangements of Joplins music and the standard and always wonderful solo piano versions. While we make use of the same notes and rhythms that Joplin originally wrote, the fact that we have twice as many fingers to use allows us more "orchestral" possibilities at the keyboard. A solo pianist, for example, sometimes has to decide between playing one line staccato (detached) and another line legato (smoothly) while keeping up the bouncy ragtime rhythm in the left hand. Two pianists at one keyboard have more options. Even in the passages without extra texturing or ornamentation, four hands at one keyboard provide a greater variety of phrasing and expression.
The original key of this piece is A-flat, and, for a couple of powerful hits, our arrangement calls for us to play an "A-flat" that is a half step below the lowest key on the piano. Many times in concert we simply play the lowest key, an "A," which, for a brief moment in that very low register, can fool the ear. When possible we like to have the low "A" tuned to an "A-flat" but only when we do not need the lowest "A" for other pieces in the same concert. Our piano technician Paul Bruno detuned the lowest bass string by one half step for this piece on the recording and then retuned that string for the rest of the recording. Incidentally, Bösendorfer makes pianos that have more than 88 keys. When we perform on these pianos we do not have to compromise our concert tuning for this piece.
Tracks 7 - 10: Ballet For Two Pianos (Kirk Whipple)
Quick facts: Performed at two pianos. This suite is a collection of light-hearted dance movements. Galactic premier: April 5th, 1991, The First National Bank Building, Houma, Louisiana, inaugural concert presentation of the Houma-Terrebonne Arts and Humanities Council.
Kirk: "I composed this suite from several sketches. I became inspired to expand the sketches into the four complete movements and spent about a week of sleepless nights finishing the composition. After which, I dedicated the work to Marilyn and not only because she put up with me for that last week! This was the first complete multi-movement work that I wrote for our duo."
Marilyn: "Out of all the pieces on this recording I think this was the most difficult. Even with the advantage of knowing and working directly with the composer, it is always a daunting task to be the first person or ensemble to interpret a new composition with solid technique and musicianship. And this piece is quite a challenge, both musically and technically! Every time we premier a new work we can not help but think about the example we are setting for our audiences and other pianists who will follow."
Track 7: Hoedown
In the southern influenced Hoedown, we have to work harder than our string counterparts on the repeated "fiddle" chord grooves. Marilyn: "I love fiddle music and in the Hoedown we both get to fiddle!" Kirk really makes us work on the syncopations!"
Track 8: Gavotte
This Gavotte was written with the flow and rhythmic style of a samba. As in the baroque gavottes of Bachs day, phrases begin on the up- of the two-beat feel. Another baroque-style element is the interplay and trading of voices, or counterpoint, between the two pianists.
Track 9: Romance
Basically a jazz waltz, this movement mixes elements of three, four and five. The Romance constantly slips between classical and jazz styles. The feel of the 3/4 waltz is always present throughout the appearances of the uses of four and five. Both pianists have to be careful not to disturb the waltz feel of the piece when the other rhythms enter.
Track 10: Gigue
The Gigue (pronounced zheeg) is a traditional up-tempo baroque dance. As in Bachs day, this gigue can be felt in six or twelve. Two of the traditional 6/8 gigue phrases can be found within the rock-laced 12/8 shuffle feel. Other rhythmic changes pop up to heighten the drama of this final bravura movement.
Track 11: Linus & Lucy (Vince Guaraldi / Whipple & Morales)
Quick facts: Performed at two pianos. More improvisation in the middle of this piece.
In this recording (and usually) we perform this piece at two pianos. In some concerts, however, we play it at one piano. Because we get in each others way, it is more difficult in the one piano/four hands setting. Either way, this a lot of fun to play!
An honor we are proud of has been the privilege of meeting Charles Schulz and entertaining him with our performance of this piece. One would think that Mr. Schulz would have tired of this tune over the years, but we are happy to report that his face literally lit up with "Peanuts" style enthusiasm on the occasions we had to play it for him.
A careful listener will hear on this performance what we have decided to call "The Woodstock Effect." We recorded this piece in one take at the end of our session. We both felt that the energy of our performance was high. When we went into the sound booth to check our work we noticed a slight "fluttering" sound in the bridge section. A couple of closer listens proved the sound to be the rattling of the music desk on one of the pianos. We decided to record another take, but were less pleased with the energy this second time. We finally decided to keep our first take of the piece, smiling and congratulating ourselves that Snoopys friend Woodstock had blessed us with his presence in this joyful performance! We hope that this can point out to the novice recording artist the value of accepting slight "imperfections" from a performance when a greater musical goal is achieved.
Track 12: The Original Boogie Woogie (Clarence "Pine Top" Smith / Kirk Whipple)
Quick facts: Performed at two pianos. Again, yes - more improvisation.
This piece, like Linus & Lucy, really puts the "celebrating" in Celebrating Americans! Concert pianists seem to spend a lot of time practicing and talking about "serious" music. This is a good thing; we have much to gain spiritually and intellectually from serious pursuits. We also feel that much is to be gained from pieces that simply make us feel good!
We always do something slightly different each time we play Pine Tops Boogie Woogie. Part of the allure of learning how to improvise is the thrill of the unknown and the exhilaration of doing something wonderful in that "unknown" space.
We encourage young musicians to develop their classical musicianship, experiment with different styles, improvisation and the creation of original works and arrangements. If you are reading this now and, in some small or great way, have been inspired by our music and this commentary we would be delighted to hear from you!
Kirk Whipple & Marilyn Morales, Duo Pianists / Composers / Educators
8035 S.W. 26th Street, Miami, FL 33155