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How to Play Indian Sitar Raags on a Piano
Published 2016. 258pp. ISBN 9781326786625
BUY IT HERE: www.pianoraag.com
Dr Mark Polishook lulu.com 10Jan2017
This is a great book. The author conveys a real sense of how to begin improvising with raags. He does that by explaining the subject matter with enormous clarity and insight. And he brings a fantastic understanding of process to what he explains. There are a lot of books about improvisation out there. But this one's the real deal. And it's about improvising in a style that by and large isn't accessible unless you have access to a master practitioner and teacher. What else is there to say? I'd give it 11 stars if Lulu gave us that option!
Allan Cronin, NewMusicBuff newmusicbuff.wordpress.com/2017/02/19/the-next-chapter-of-east-meets-west-john-pitts-raags-for-piano
I recall with nostalgia my first hearing of Yehudi Menuhin’s collaboration with Ravi Shankar titled, “East Meets West”. I was in high school and had not yet heard the exotic sound of the sitar. Menuhin’s ability to grasp and communicate world music to an audience schooled in the Western European classical traditions is a treasured part of his legacy.
Along comes composer pianist John Pitts (1976- ) who encountered raga scales and Hindustani classical forms during a “gap year” in his musical studies in 1995. This encounter subsequently spurred him to write the present book, a seemingly obvious idea but one that has not been attempted in quite this way as far as I can determine. Pitts is a highly skilled pianist and composer.
This book assumes no more than a basic grounding in western classical music and at least a modicum of skill at the keyboard. With that and the present text the interested reader/player will be brought to a fine introduction to Hindustani scales and forms and have a method by which at least some of these ideas can be applied to the ubiquitous piano thereby providing another perspective.
Of course the microtonal aspects of this music cannot be reproduced on a piano but the basic concepts of the scales and the improvisational methodology will surely enhance the imagination and skills of any interested musician. The book introduces these concepts in a lucid manner and provides notation and methods enabling one to play a variety of ragas at the keyboard in a fairly short time.
I have lived with this book for several weeks now and find it endlessly fascinating. Even with my limited keyboard skills I have been able to scratch the surface and begin to explore some of the essence of this ancient musical system. Very likely this text will do much to enhance the compositional imagination as well as one’s keyboard skills. Some may recall, for example, that Philip Glass developed his mature compositional style after his encounter with this musical system in his work with the same Ravi Shankar whose mastery inspired Sir Yehudi Menuhin to bring this music to a western audience.
Recordings have made so much world music with its varied scales, rhythmic structures and tuning systems available to a much wider audience but much less has been done to provide interested musicians with a more hands on experience. This book does much to address this gap. It does not pretend to be a definitive exposition of this musical system nor does it attempt to create more than a basic pedagogy which will encourage further exploration. This book is very much a continuation of the interest begun by Menuhin, Glass and their followers.
Bravo, Mr. Pitts!
Robert Matthew-Walker, Editor, 'Musical Opinion'
"a very well produced and informative book"
Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb-International www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2017/Mar/Pitts_raags.htm
It’s not every day that I come across a book quite this specialised but I’ve enjoyed John Pitts’ compositions on disc and was curious to see how he would set about the task of encouraging the reader to explore North Indian sitar music on their Western pianos. The short answer is very entertainingly and encouragingly.
In this large size paperback, copiously illustrated with music examples, Pitts outlines the key ingredients of the raag (it literally means ‘colour’), India’s semi-improvised music, and how it can be transformed for use on solo or two pianos or indeed piano duet. There’s an enlightening and disarming introduction in which the whys and wherefores are honestly addressed – sample rhetorical question: ‘So, how can Indian music be played on a piano?’ – before the structural niceties of the raag genre are approached.
Pitts includes 24 raags, newly composed, though like a master chef encouraging his novice bakers, he also includes a pick ‘n’ mix section to allow ingredient mixing by fusing raag elements or indeed taking the plunge and composing one’s own. After the introduction, Pitts presents his first raag interspersing instruction, explication and suggestion so as to get the reader au fait with the salient features of the raag – it’s very complex and ornate – after which he devotes fully 46 pages to explaining elements such as drone effects, improvised melodies, decoration, the use of the interlude, and the whole nature of the raag’s structure. Only a thorough study of the instructions will reveal the detail and the profuse help offered to the player and the help is presented with clarity. All the hundreds of musical examples are clear and clean and the interspersed advice on performance equally so: no scrunched or bunched text or music here.
The novice will also receive a non-didactic crash course in terminology and in the music’s pitches and its context, as each raag is associated with a particular mood and this also extends to the time of the day when particular raags are played. There’s a fascinating ‘time frame’ table showing which is the best time to play the 24 rags.
So really this is a cornucopia of raag-related information for the intrepid traveller into the world of raag-piano. The text is broken up by photographs, some rather grainy given the print, that range from a picture of the author himself in a deprecatingly entitled picture called ‘How not to hold a sitar’ to a ruddy goose. You don’t get that in biographies of Mahler.
If you have any interest in this esoteric arena, in improvising from a Classical or jazz background, or even from an ill-defined background, and want to face the challenge of encompassing twenty scales, I can’t imagine a better primer than this.
John Pitt, New Classics new-classics.co.uk/html/books.html January 2017
unique and fascinating book
Duo Bohemes: Harmonies d'un soir 1EqualMusic/Hyperion Records
Geoffrey Molyneux, musicweb-international.com July 2014
...The real interest on this disc for me is the piece by John Pitts entitled Raag Gezellig. According to the well-written and informative programme notes, the piece draws heavily on the classical sitar raag tradition of Pakistan. It begins quietly and atmospherically in the depths of the piano. These gentle murmurings soon become ominous and the first pianist joins in with melodic fragments which become gradually more aggressive, not to mention highly virtuosic and improvised-sounding. Soon we hear some extensive melodic lines at a faster pace. Some melodies are pre-composed, other sections are semi-improvised. It all builds to a grand and magnificent climax followed by a short, gentle and effective conclusion. I was made aware from the disc of Piano Music by John Pitts which I reviewed some time ago, that here is a composer who has something of real interest to say. All the pieces I have heard so far are really characterful and imaginative and Raag Gezellig is no exception.
The piece by John Pitts is well-worth investigating and it is brilliantly played here by Duo Bohêmes.
Steven Kings - intensely pleasant music: 7 Airs & Fantasias and other piano music by John Pitts
£9.99 (plus p&p) cd.tp/ipm08
"Realmente un magnífico repertorio desbordante de calidad, belleza y de sumo interés."
Alejandro Clavijo, Reviews New Age
"The performances by Steven Kings are excellent ...
All [the pieces] are pleasing to hear and will be satisfying to play"
Patric Standford, Music & Vision Daily
“This is a colorful and interesting set by a talented composer....
The playing by Steven Kings is technically and emotionally perfect."
Oleg Ledeniov, MusicWeb International
Stephen Eddins, All Music Guide
“great character and emotional integrity...a thoroughly worthwhile project”
Mark Tanner, Piano Professional Magazine
Adolfo del Brezo, OpusMusica.com (Spain)
“…surely more than just `intensely pleasant music'.”
Michael Darvell, ClassicalSource.com
Paul Riley, Venue Magazine
Robert Matthew-Walker, Musical Opinion Magazine
Andy Gill, The Independent
“…highly listenable stuff, very deftly in control of its chosen medium. A number of disparate influences are on display here, but welded into an overall idiom of considerable charm… `Intensely pleasant music'? Most certainly.”
Calum MacDonald, International Record Review Magazine
9/10 “this album is beautiful, moving and relaxing”
Andy Whitehead, Cross Rhythms
“A colossal musical project… stunning and seriously impressive"
John France, MusicWeb International
"Exciting stuff all round - vital, energising, but sensitive when need be. Toes - prepare to tap."
Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International
Alejandro Clavijo, Reviews New Age November 2010
7 Airs & Fantasias and other piano music es una muestra de prodigio y perfección al piano. John Pitts compone dieciséis obras de gran interés y belleza. Con la colaboración de otro gran pianista, Steven Kings, John ejecuta dos piezas de un portentoso nerviosismo y nos regala catorce temas compuestos entre los años 1992 y 2007 que acarician los sentidos. Realmente un magnífico repertorio desbordante de calidad, belleza y de sumo interés.
La primera obra que nos presenta el artista es "Changes (For Twenty Nifty Fingers)", que junto al segundo track de este álbum llenan más de doce minutos de enérgicos toques, al parecer improvisados, recordando a las melodías de los maestros Jarrett o Mertens en algunos instantes. Para esta primera pieza, el asombro está garantizado, realmente hay veinte dedos dando forma a una melodía frenética pero increíble, puro virtuosismo!. Me encanta!.
"Toccata: Blue Frenzy" es la segunda pieza enardecida del CD, además de las más extensa, casi 10 minutos de incesante y bella improvisación. Es fascinante poder imaginar el rápido movimiento de las manos del pianista recorriendo todas las escalas del piano una y otra vez. Wow!.
A partir de "Air 1: Gentle Interweaving" el álbum cobra un sentimiento más delicado, dulce. En este caso, la música se nota levemente triste, pero con una apasionada melodía que enaltece la lamentación.
"Fantasia 1: Clockwork 5/4" es otra de mis preferidas. De reiterativa y oscura melodía, pero grandiosa técnicamente, esta elaborada composición muestra el permanente pasar del tiempo, constante, de inevitable parada. Qué gran tema!.
"Air 2: After Satie" deja ver el vivo minimalismo que el Maestro Satie mostraba en cada una de sus obras. Una mezcla de fragilidad y lindeza componen cada nota que acaricia el artista en esta tierna pieza.
Un toque de cuerdas de piano abren el tema "Fantasia 2: On the Westminster Chimes". Mágica, enérgica y sorprendente, el piano reproduce la conocida melodía que el reloj de la famosa torre londinense hacer sonar en las horas puntas. Nuevamente, otra obra magistral en la técnica y bellísima en su composición!.
"Air 3: On An Anagram" es estupenda. La música perfecta para acompañar a un tierno y romántico baile, un tema íntimo, profundo y muy conmovedor.
"Fantasia 3: Parallel Octaves". Aunque posee gran encanto, la música es un permanente toque de notas altas mientras la mano derecha reproduce una discontinua melodía, muy monótona en ocasiones, provocando la desatención del oyente.
Una reservada y lenta danza es "Air 4: Sarabande". Dibujada por apenadas notas, esta composición se va tornando en algunos momentos valerosa, volviendo a su estado de profunda preocupación.
Con "Fantasia 4: Wind Chimes" es como si pudiésemos oír la voz del viento. Semejándose a pequeñas campanillas movidas por una suave brisa, "Fantasia 4: Wind Chimes" reproduce una música sin melodía definida, reproduciendo el tintineo que harían las pequeñas campanas al ser tocadas por el viento, un tintineo que se acelera con un marcado ritmo. Me gusta!.
Después de la agitación del tema anterior, "Air 5: Calmly Contented" nos aporta una armonía y una tranquilidad exquisitas. Con suavidad, se van marcando algunos acordes mientras la diestra reproduce una melodía quebradiza y llena de ternura.
"Fantasia 5: Bells in 9/8" es maravillosa. Un rápido toque de notas altas sirven de acompañamiento permanente a algunos acordes y notas rápidas que reproduce la mano izquierda en la zona baja del teclado. Una composición risueña y positiva, y otra de mis preferidas!.
"Air 6: Modal Twist" parece otra melodía creada en el momento, como improvisada. Esta es un continuo juego de vertiginosas notas que nacen en las distintas escalas, dejando algunos momentos de descanso. Una obra hipnotizante!.
De elegante sencillez, "Fantasia 6: Half-Second-Hand" no posee una compleja música, ni técnicamente es destacable, pero si es de una profunda hermosura. Un toque persistente de notas de principio a fin son el acompañamiento para una melodía intermitente y penetrante.
Predominando una melodía creada por golpes de acordes, "Air 7: Cantabile Mist" es sencilla en su melodía pero acertada en la composición. La unión de las notas agudas con las más graves ofrecen una sombría belleza a esta lenta obra.
El CD concluye con "Fantasia 7: All in a Chord". Haciendo honor a su título, este tema marca con fuerza un acorde, siendo a veces cansado, esperando con ansias un cambio de tercio que nunca llega. Constante desde su comienzo y distinguiendo algunas mínimas variaciones, la melodía va evolucionando con dificultad entre el repetitivo acorde.
Para los amantes de un piano distinto, minimalista y prodigioso, se descubre 7 Airs & Fantasias and other piano music por el compositor y pianista anglosajón, John Pitts. Un estilo que carece de muy pocos creadores que lo persigan, pero al que le sobran fieles seguidores. Un magistral género que conocemos gracias a los maestros Keith Jarrett o Wim Mertens, por nombrar a los más destacables, y al que hoy incluimos al maestro John Pitts que ha hecho un trabajo espectacular, lo máximo en técnica y en belleza. 7 Airs & Fantasias and other piano music es un álbum muy interesante y recomendable.
Patric Standford, Music & Vision Daily June 2010
7 Aires & Fantasias are solo piano pieces written between 1992 and 2007 and are grouped together in pairs, without necessarily being thematically related, rather like Bach's Preludes and Fugues. They are intended to be played individually or in pairs, and have programmatic titles that will appeal to pianists that may grade themselves as between 6 and 8 in the examination stakes.
The subtitles give an indication of the moods: Gentle Interweaving and Clockwork 5/4; Sarabande and Wind Chimes; Cantabile Mist and All in a chord. All are pleasing to hear and will be satisfying to play, though some are more difficult than others.
The performances by Steven Kings are excellent and capture both the delicacy and occasional liveliness of the pieces, many of which seem to exude elements of devious humour that places them rather further from the Bach than their structural partnerships might suggest....
Perhaps more impressive than all these pieces is the energetic Toccata (Blue Frenzy) and a piece called Changes 'for 20 nifty fingers' in which Kings is partnered by the composer in an impressive brief climactic outburst....
Oleg Ledeniov, MusicWeb International May 2010
I was a little nervous about the words "intensely pleasant music" which were repeated several times over the disc case and the booklet. It smelled of Richard Clayderman. However, don't worry: it is not intensely pleasant music, it is just good. What a relief.
The opening piece must be a counting nightmare for the two pianists: they are supposed to play overlapping bars of 14 vs. 15 quavers. But what a splendid result! It's as if Prokofiev's Toccata was rewritten by Steve Reich: rolling at you like a rollercoaster. Probably, this rolling effect is created by the unequal bar partitions - a perpetuum instabile, like Brahms' 2-to-3. It was hard to stop listening to it in "Repeat" mode and move on to the second piece.
Blue Frenzy is another toccata. This time it's not just a one-trick thing like the first one, but a multifaceted construction. The composer expertly works with motivic cells. Ten minutes pass as one: episodes are well measured, with times to ride and times to rest. Relentless ever-changing rhythm and jazzy harmonies propel the music forward.
Finally, there is the set of seven pairs of Airs & Fantasias. Brahms would probably call them Intermezzos and Capriccios, although in character they are closer to Debussy's Préludes (or, as is the case with Air 3, to Chopin's). As the insert notes put it, "The airs are essentially melody-dominated, and the fantasias are pieces in free form with a minimalistic use of repeated and rotating patterns". The Fantasias often explore the clock-bell-chime soundworld (just look at their titles), but this is well separated by more "horizontal" Airs. There are many pleasant discoveries - melodic, rhythmic, sonic - but almost no standard or predictable moves or clichés - at least, for me. The listener doesn't have to work hard to get into the music: a kind of minimalistic "submerge and relax" attitude will definitely do the trick. This is a colorful and interesting set by a talented composer. And if harmony is your thing, you'll find much to admire here.
The playing of Steven Kings is technically and emotionally perfect. It is dry enough to convey the youthful, fresh character of the music, yet not too dry, and so the music preserves all the lyricism and the crispiness. One minor thing, though: some moments seemed over-pedalled. The recording, mastered by Jonathan Scott, is very spacious. No: it's four-dimensional. You can almost see the notes materializing in the air. All in all, this is a rewarding disc. Well... intensely pleasant. But in a good sense!
Stephen Eddins, All Music Guide April 2010
The 14 movements of British composer John Pitts' Seven Airs & Fantasias are notable for their warmth and generous lyricism. Most are quietly contemplative character pieces not given to dramatic developments or contrasts. One of the airs has the title "After Satie" and the spirit, if not always the language, of Satie's quiet piano miniatures infuses more than a few of the movements. In spite of the apparent simplicity of the music's surface, it's clear that these are not casual improvisations and that Pitts has control over the structure and direction of each piece. In several, he uses a system of chord relationships he developed based on a "circle of anything-but-fifths" that he describes as "twisted harmonies," which avoids conventional harmonic resolutions but has its own idiosyncratic sense of tension and release. While they are not harmonically static, most of the pieces tend to have a "white note" sound. There is certainly dissonance in the jazz-tinged harmonies, but the repetitive structures and essentially tonal harmonic vocabulary give some of the music a gently hypnotic post-minimal effect. "Changes for 20 nifty fingers", and "Blue Frenzy, toccata for piano", are another story altogether. These, too, have a minimalist feeling, but of the very fast variety, and they make virtuoso demands on performer Steven Kings, who is joined in Changes by the composer. The performances of Airs & Fantasias are sensitive and nuanced and vigorously animated in Changes and Blue Frenzy. The name of Pitts' record label, Intensely Pleasant Music, is certainly an apt characterization of the works on this release. The sound is clean, clear, and present.
Adolfo del Brezo, OpusMusica.com 1 November 2009
El afán clasificatorio tan propio del ser humano se topa a veces con casos que se resisten a cualquier encasillamiento, como es el caso del CD que nos ocupa. ¿Música clásica, jazz, new age, música minimalista...? Lo más recomendable aquí es cerrar los ojos y, sin prejuicios y sin buscar ningún molde estilístico preconcebido, disponerse a disfrutar de esta atractiva música pianística escrita por el joven y talentoso compositor británico John Pitts.
El disco se abre con mucho ritmo: la breve Changes —interpretada por los diez dedos de Steven Kings con la ayuda de los diez dedos de John Pitts—, seguida de una larga Toccata de casi diez minutos de duración, esta vez, como el resto del disco, interpretada a solo por los diez dedos de Steven Kings que a menudo parecen más de veinte, tal es la aparente dificultad de ejecución de esta obra. Tras esta dosis altamente eléctrica de ritmo comienza la sucesión de 7 Airs & Fantasias, un total de catorce conmovedoras piezas que son una auténtica delicia de sensibilidad y originalidad. Música pianística principalmente melódica, apta para todos los públicos, por la que desfilan ecos de Ravel, Satie, Messiaen, Bernstein, John Cage, Steve Reich o Keith Jarrett, todo ello aderezado con el estilo personalísimo de John Pitts y cocinado por un intérprete de muy alto nivel como es el también británico Steven Kings. La Fantasia 2, titulada On the Westminster Chimes está interpretada sobre un piano preparado y fascina al oyente por sus originales sonoridades. El resto de piezas se ejecutan sobre un piano de concierto tradicional y son ideales para ser escuchadas en la soledad de la noche, dejándose llevar por la ola de sensaciones que transmiten al oyente, entre la nostalgia, la evocación, la melancolía o la inquietud, pero creando siempre un clima agradable y relajante. Existe además un extra track no incluido en el CD, que sólo puede obtenerse mediante descarga de la red, titulado Are You Going? basado en la canción tradicional inglesa Scarborough Fair, cuya novedad es que está interpretado por nada menos que tres pianistas (Daniella Acker, Steven Kings y el propio compositor, John Pitts) compartiendo un mismo piano.
Muy lejos de los experimentos de vanguardia, este es un CD recomendable para melómanos dispuestos a disfrutar y emocionarse con algo tan sencillo como los sonidos de un piano que nos despierta sensaciones a flor de piel.
Mark Tanner, Piano Professional Magazine Summer 2009
The first three minutes of this recording from pianist Steven Kings, recorded in Bristol six months ago, is a work entitled Changes, to which the subtitle for 20 nifty fingers is added. In case you are wondering whether Steven Kings took his shoes and socks off for the occasion, or employed the services of a Dohnanyi-schooled cephalopod, I hasten to add that Kings is ably assisted by John Pitts here, composer of all sixteen tracks included on the album. I enjoyed listening to the recording, which has a refreshingly transparent character that suits the music. Changes, incidentally, comes over most convincingly, its constantly rebuffed rhythmic thrust deftly negotiated so that the sense of an organic growth is ever apparent. Toccata, subtitled Blue Frenzy and described as a ‘tour de force of driving energy’, also lives up to its title, calling for exceptional dexterity and rhythmic commitment to embody the quirkiness of the writing. Insistent chordal shapes elbow their way past passages that demand a even, leggiero touch – a jazzy and well envisioned piece that is very tightly caught by Kings. In 7 Airs and Fantasias Pitts fuses together the lyrical and the minimalistic, a work composed over a period of fifteen years that mostly succeeds in holding the attention. There is a naive charm to some of the more tuneful pieces, and these can suddenly give way to episodes of a more bittersweet fragrance that catch you by surprise. The titles, such as On the Westminster Chimes, Half-Second Hand and Clockwork 5/4 are highly suggestive and appropriate, while the Fantasias are often inclined towards a jazz-like impetus. After Satie works very nicely indeed, succeeding in squaring the circle between the youthful Pitts and the Honfleur-dwelling Frenchman prone to pared-down vignettes. Fantasia 2 involves modest preparation to the piano, so that various effects emerge surrounding the carillon itself – a well considered structure to the piece that nevertheless ensures the survival of the fantasia image. One or two of the set, particularly later, seem to lose their way slightly, although the meditative connotation is certainly palpable.
Brother of Antony Pitts (whose epic choral work Tonus Peregrinus I had the pleasure of reviewing elsewhere, quite recently), John's music clearly has great character and emotional integrity, too. The playing throughout this recording is highly rhythmic and invigorating, Steven Kings communicating the mood-switches with real understanding, patience and sympathy. A thoroughly worthwhile project.
Michael Darvell, classicalsource.com 6 October 2009
...Original or derivative is the question to ask about the piano music of John Pitts. It certainly has a character all of its own but then it also recalls many styles from Bach and Scarlatti all the way through to Ludovico Einaudi and Michael Nyman, taking in Scott Joplin and Erik Satie en route and there’s even a nod to the mediaeval folk-song ‘Scarborough Fair’ and Big Ben in the ding-dong shape of the Westminster chimes. Pitts’s music is full of references such as these which give the works an amusingly offbeat charm and an ability eventually to grow on the listener. But is it anything more than just “intensely pleasant music”, as it has been described elsewhere?
Obviously Pitts has talent and imagination and is ploughing his own musical furrow. ...Some of the pieces could well be turned into songs, and especially so with Air 3 (‘On an anagram’) with its slow, mournful melody, which seems particularly ripe for treatment as a ballad or torch song. Play these pieces several times and they do begin to stay with you, which must be a sign that they are surely more than just “intensely pleasant music”.
Paul Riley, Venue 23 September 2009
`Intensely pleasant music' is a disc summoned (and sustained) by bells. Actually `summoned' doesn't begin to cover the urgency of `Changes' - 3 minutes of minimalist romp with attitude played with steely muscularity and razor-sharp rhythmic verve by the composer and Steven Kings (who shoulders the rest of the disc, solo, with a confident authority). The Toccata that follows is a pithy razzle with a bluesy undertow and some Messiaenic chirruping. So far, (and this is a compliment!), so `un-pleasant'. All that changes with the first of the 7 Airs and Fantasias, which ushers in a sometimes uneasy balance between the guilelessly appealing and the occasionally anodyne. `After Satie' does what it says on the tin with an extra layer to keep warm, the Cageian `prepared' effects lend an ingenious edginess to `On the Westminster Chimes' while `On an anagram' sounds like a Chopin prelude mated with loved-up Faure. Talk about the ear-catchingly rough with the smooth!
Calum MacDonald, International Record Review July/August 2009 issue
... highly listenable stuff, very deftly in control of its chosen medium. A number of disparate influences are on display here, but welded into an overall idiom of considerable charm, which is no quality to be despised in these fraught days. Although the longest item on the disc, the virtuoso Toccata, Blue Frenzy, is jazzy in harmony and rhythm, it's the opening piece, the piano duet Changes (in which Pitts joins Steven Kings as second pianist), which sets the technical tone. The composer describes it as `a minimalistic counting duel for twenty nifty fingers', and it signals the fact that a lot of these movements are processes or machines of some sort, setting up a rhythmic/harmonic premise and letting it play out, often very inventively, over a stretch of minutes.
Quite a few of the movements are bell-pieces of various kinds: Fantasia 2 (On the Westminster Chimes) calls for a prepared piano to create some of the campanular sonorities, while the longest movement in Airs and Fantasias, namely Fantasia 4 (Wind Chimes), evokes the seemingly random tintinnabulations of wind chimes. Fantasias 1 and 6 are both in their different ways clockwork imitations. Air 2 (After Satie) is a lush, warmed-up Gymnopédie, Air 7 (Cantabile Mist) a waft of tremulous Impressionism, the concluding Fantasia 7 (All in a chord) a gamelan piece. One thinks Debussy, a little Messiaen, `La vallée des cloches' (Ravel's Miroirs), but some pieces (Air 5, Calmly Contented) wear their modal, English-music origins with pride. One thinks Vaughan Williams and Graham Fitkin. All this is just to indicate that Pitts has an eclectic ear, and to give some ideas of what the music sounds like; but it is serenely (I've used that word again) sure of its direction.
There's little to choose between Kings's and Jacobs's interpretations of the three pieces they duplicate, except that Kings gives Air 1 and Fantasia 1 more time and space to breathe. Jacobs's more clipped readings may partly have been determined by the acoustic he was recorded in, and the piano he was using: the sound on the new (and very well-filled) CD is extremely good and Kings (a fellow-member of the Severnside Composers' Alliance) proves a sympathetic and resourceful advocate of Pitts's music.
'Intensely pleasant music'? Most certainly. ...
Andy Whitehead, Cross Rhythms
This entirely instrumental CD contains music composed by Britain's John Pitts and played predominantly on piano by Steven Kings. Some of the tracks are vaguely reminiscent of the minimalist style of popular classical composer Ludovico Einaudi. The album begin with two stand-alone pieces and then tracks vary in style and are divided into seven "air" tracks and seven "fantasia" tracks. That these tracks alternate on the track listing (air, then fantasia, then air again, etc.) serves to clearly highlight the differences and similarities in style between the two. The air tracks are traditional ballad-style pieces dominated by melody and a more rigid structure. The fantasia tracks are more experimental, occasionally featuring bell or plucked string sounds and possessing an improvisational or loose musical structure. Notable tracks include "Fantasia 2", which is given the sub-title "On The Westminster Chimes", it musically quotes the famous tune played on the Westminster Chimes that signifies the arrival of a new hour and explores this melody in an engaging and original way. This album is a musical treat for anyone who enjoys original piano music; it draws from many musical sources and explores them in an abstract and intriguing way, without compromising the originality of the composition. The music never strays too far from conventional tonal music and stays calm, relaxing and interesting throughout. For people who appreciate piano music, this music is well structured and not clichéd, and for people who are looking for some soft instrumental music, this album is beautiful, moving and relaxing.
Robert Matthew-Walker, col1Musical Opinion June/July 2009 issue
...we have a style of `modern-music-without-tears'... and there is no doubt of the composer's admirably consistent expressive style. Much of this music is governed by a sensitive and intelligent creative personality, and the general character of Pitts's work, as exemplified here, is well worth the attention of listeners - especially those who tend to shy away from modern music.
...really fine performances from Steven Kings... The sound quality is excellent...
Andy Gill The Independent 17 April 2009
The seemingly oxymoronic title, suggestive of Satie or the balmier moments of Debussy, turns out to be not far from the truth.
One Air is even subtitled "After Satie", and not without cause, while the first Fantasias employs a twinkling delicacy akin to a music-box; another features prepared piano, trapped strings resonating beneath the cascades of notes. "Changes" (for the "20 nifty fingers" of performer and composer together) is a minimalist exercise incorporating rapid, staccato waves, while the toccata "Blue Frenzy" scurries between blues and dissonance, variously recalling Keith Jarrett, Sun Ra and Bud Powell. Deftly impressive.
Download this: 'Changes', 'Blue Frenzy', 'Fantasia 2'
Jonathan Woolf MusicWeb International May 2009
Dunelm Records released an Air and two Fantasies by John Pitts on DRD0238. Now here we have the full set of fourteen on this disc, with two extras, Changes and the Toccata, in authoritative and tremendously agile performances by Steven Kings.
Pitts studied at Bristol and Manchester and in 2003 won the Philharmonia Orchestra’s Martin Musical Scholarship Fund Composition Prize. He composes for a wide range of forces, chamber, solo piano, choral included.
So much for a potted biography, what about the music? Seven Airs and Fantasias was composed between 1992 and 2007. They can played in individually, in pairs or as a full set. Melodic and engaging these are delightful pieces. The first air is fulsomely melodic whilst its fantasia has a tick-tocking warmth that moves off into mellower more swinging lyricism. The second Air is Satie-drenched whilst the second Fantasie uses a prepared piano – it’s a kind of chime study with Chinoiserie elements. The third air sounds like reharmonised Chopin, affectionately sad with vestigial Rachmaninovian chording maybe. There are Francophile tints in Air 4 and minimalist dynamism animates the increasingly exciting Air 5 with its strong left hand ‘pillars’ and vaguely French deftness. Whereas there’s quite a sturdy English buoyancy to Air 5; Fantasie 5 meanwhile relates to the first, second and fourth fantasies in its exploration of tintinabulism. The sixth Fantasie is explicitly minimalist whilst the seventh air offers Pitts’s ‘twisted’ harmonies – which sounds a bit Morton Feldman-like but you should consult his website for further information on that point. The last Fantasie offers an almost obsessive chordal concentration. It ends a cycle of verve, imagination, as well as colouristic and rhythmic vivacity – and shows Pitts as honouring a wide lineage whilst absorbing it into his own schema very successfully.
Changes (for twenty nifty fingers) is a fiendishly minimalistic workout for Kings and the composer, who adds his own ten digits to the pottage. It’s three minutes of pile driving energy and brilliantly exciting. The Toccata (Blue Frenzy) is longer and more malleable. It’s strong and tensile but from around the four minute mark becomes more deliberate. Outbursts though are vivid and as for its ethos, let’s just say that if Nancarrow’s player piano mated with Leo Ornstein, and Albert Ammons’s boogie-woogie piano was on an overdose of uppers it might sound a bit like this. Galvanizing stuff!
I’ve also checked out the extra (review) download as well, Are You Going? for thirty nifty fingers which is based on Scarborough Fair. It’s a toccata boogie of unstoppable, unquenchable verve and you will find it on the composer’s website.
Exciting stuff all round – vital, energising, but sensitive when need be. Toes – prepare to tap.
John France MusicWeb International April 2009
A couple of years ago I reviewed a CD of music by the Severnside Alliance of Composers. I was particularly impressed with some piano pieces by John Pitts. I noted that his “music reminded me of Herbert Howells’ Lambert’s Clavichord; not in idiom so much as his ‘picking up’ an older style of keyboard composition and re-presenting it for our times”. I concluded by suggesting that “this is lovely music to listen to and shows a deep absorption of earlier styles but with a large degree of originality added for good measure.”
A few days ago, the present CD dropped into my letter box and I was delighted to be introduced to a larger selection of his music. My original thoughts about his style, ability and technique held up well throughout the near-eighty minutes of this recording.
It is not really the place to give a biography of John Pitts. However a few brief notes will help the listener and the potential CD purchaser gain some understanding of this interesting composer and his music.
John Pitts studied with a galaxy of teachers including John Casken, Robert Saxton and John Pickard. In 2003 he won the prestigious Philharmonia Orchestra Martin Musical Scholarship Fund Composition Prize: his Piano Quartet was performed by the Fidelio Quartet in the final stages of the competition at the Royal Festival Hall.
Pitts is interested in composing for Christian worship and for the stage. He has written incidental music for a number of stage plays and two short operatic works – Crossed Wires and the strangely entitled 3 Sliced Mice! Other interests include working with the Bristol Savoy Operatic Society as a conductor and arranger.
The music on this CD consists of a major cycle of piano music – the 7 Airs & Fantasias, which I believe is well worth regarding as an entity, and two additional pieces for good measure.
The disc opens with a piece called Changes – for 20 nifty fingers. On this recording the pianist Stephen Kings is assisted with a further ten fingers by the composer. It is definitely a minimalist work that is vibrant and even rock-based in its driving rhythms. Like much of Pitts's music it develops bell-like changes – a campanologist's delight. After many adventures it ends abruptly on a loud violent chord. A great opener – or encore for any pianist.
The massive Toccata is subtitled Blue Frenzy. This is a considerable work lasting near ten minutes. I found this work to be pleasantly modern in style. I see it as complex and even disjointed but I am not sure if ‘frenzy’ is a good adjective. The idiom would seem to be rhythm piano, boogie-woogie, rather than the ‘blues’. This music is technically involved; it shows a great command of pianistic style and sounds extremely difficult. I can hardly believe that it is played by just one player!
The main event on this CD is the group of seven Airs interspersed with seven Fantasias. This is a colossal musical project that deserves admiration. Pitts achieves a structure that manages to be both diverse and unified at the same time. That is no mean achievement in a cycle lasting more than an hour.
The opening Air (1) is subtitled Gently Interweaving. This is not minimalist in ethos, but is gently meditative music that exploits shifting harmonies. There is almost a ‘pop’ feel to this piece. Its companion Fantasia –Clockwork 5/4 is constructed from gently shifting patterns of music and cross-rhythms. Initially played on the high octaves of the piano this music moves into the lower register. I was impressed by the interesting pedal effects in this piece.
Air (2) carries the title After Satie. In fact, Pitts almost manages to ‘out-Satie’ Eric - if that is possible. Perhaps it could be seen as the fourth Gymnopédie? There is naturally a decided French feel to this music that is at all times very beautiful and quite relaxing.
After this ‘Parisian’ interlude the composer turns to the Westminster Chimes for his Fantasia (2). This is composed for prepared piano. I am never too convinced by this ‘faux’ alteration of the instrument’s sound – but in this case it allows the composer to contrast two completely different tonal centres in the exposition of this piece – the ‘prepared’ and the ‘normal’. The chimes pervade most of this work and it becomes almost like a toccata. There are even suggestions of ‘Chinoiserie’ in some of the later passages. This is a mystical, mysterious, and novel exercise that cannot fail to please the listener. Furthermore it manages to bring the ‘prepared piano’ from the specialised ‘Cage-ian’ milieu into more a more traditional and universal setting.
The third Air, On an Anagram is a delicious, totally laid back piece of music that exudes evocative chords, felicitous melodies and pianistic devices. The melting harmonies give this piece an almost timeless feel. And lookout for some nods (probably not deliberate) to Sir Malcolm Arnold! What the anagram is, I have no clue. And I do not really care, and I guess the listener does not need to understand this device to enjoy this lovely piece of music.
The Fantasia (3) is entitled Parallel Octaves. However the music is not all what this title suggests. This is no technical study designed to reinforce the right or the left hand in coping with a difficult device. The Octaves are only a part of the design of this piece; the music does have a minimalist feel to it with structural changes occurring slowly and subtly.
The next Air; Sarabande is actually a meditative and exploratory piece. It is sometimes quite a hard-edged example of the baroque dance form that goes beyond the usual dynamic and range.
The corresponding Fantasia is a long piece that is designed to be hypnotic in effect. Wind Chimes hardly give a clue to the clever aural effects that Pitts creates in this Debussy-like work. He manages to reduce the music to a virtual standstill – a near perfect equilibrium – stasis. I have not seen the score of this piece, but I guess that the entire Fantasia is constructed from some very simple material that is worked up and used with skill. It is a quite lovely piece. However, one word of warning: the listener will need to be in the ‘right’ mood to hear this piece. It requires a balance of attention and a certain letting go. These ‘wind chimes’ are not sounded by a hurricane – just a stiff breeze that blows through the listeners mind. After a livelier and faster second section the piece ends quietly, almost hesitatingly.
Calmly Contented, the fifth Air is probably the most ‘traditional’ of pieces in this cycle. To my ear at any rate, it is reminiscent of Gerald Finzi, though I imagine he was not a conscious model for the composer. The attentive listener will perhaps feel that the contentment is not quite as perfect as the title suggests. The calmness is disturbed now and again by something less serene. However the general impression of this air is of a concentrated introspection.
The fifth Fantasia, Bells in 9/8 is another poetic piece, evoking a variety of images in the hearer’s mind. It opens very quietly, minimalist and almost like a flower unfolding. Yet appearances can be deceptive. This piece develops into a little toccata that becomes more complex – both harmonically and rhythmical – until it reaches a mid-life crisis. Some parallel chords allow the music to slip back into the opening mood. Gently ‘clanging bells’ are heard before the work ends just a little more fraught that it opened.
I felt that Modal Twists (Air 6) was reminiscent of music from the 1950s. In particular I was reminded of the music of Franz Reizenstein. It is a good balance between consonances and dissonance and also between varying tempi. For a definition of a ‘twist’ it is essential to look at Pitts’s website.
The associated Fantasia is called Half-Second Hand. Once again this piece explores Pitts’s interest in bells and bell-ringing. Somehow, amongst the reiterated notes and the high register there is a definite Spanish feel to this music. And look out for the intriguing little downward scale figure that permeates this piece.
The last Air is called Cantabile Mist. I felt that it was a little slower than I would normally play cantabile. However this is a very beautiful piece that could almost be regarded as an essay in the use of the sustaining pedal. Naturally the ‘mist’ effect suggests impressionism – and this ‘-ism’ is never far away from what is a reflective piece. The final Fantasia –All in a Chord is all about chords – and their reiteration. The chordal structure varies between more or less complex harmonies. I was reminded of the music Steve Reich here. It is a perfect and decisive conclusion to a great work.
The playing on this CD is both stunning and seriously impressive. I alluded earlier to the Toccata sounding as if it were a piece for four hands. Steven Kings is obviously committed to this kind of music and makes a distinguished performance that does both composer and music proud. My only criticism is that I could have done with fuller programme notes. That said, however, this music is quite capable of standing on its own without a supporting commentary.
I look forward to watching John Pitts’s career with interest and certainly will be privileged to review any subsequent CDs if they are up to the compositional and performance standards of this one.
...beautifully played... Steven Kings plays with great assurance, revealing the subtlety of music that ranges from excitingly virtuoso pieces to serene, melodic reflections.
60x60: 2006 & 2007
Vox Novus [114.51]
£9.99 (plus p&p) from here
Various artists collection
Stephen Eddins, All Music Guide
60x60 is an intriguing project that's put together annually by the collective Vox Novus. Its premise is disarmingly simple: composers are invited to submit works lasting 60 seconds or less, Vox Novus selects 60 compositions and releases them played back-to-back on CD. This release includes the winners from two years, 2006 and 2007. It's intriguing to hear how much the selection varies from year to year. The aesthetic of the two discs is so different that there must have been different panels of judges making the selections. In the 2006 compilation, given the variety of compositional possibilities, it's perhaps surprising that the works are more notable for their similarity than their diversity. Virtually all the composers sound like they felt compelled to cram as much sound and activity as possible into their 60 seconds, and the majority of the pieces have a manic quality. All but a few of the pieces are electro-acoustic, so the ones produced purely on acoustical instruments really stand out. Among the more distinctive pieces are Ann Cantelow's Memory of Loss for multiple theremin tracks; John Biggs' March of the Krumerhorns, for, you guessed it, krumhorn ensemble; and Morning Song by Stuart Hinds, an overtone singer capable of simultaneously producing unbelievably independent vocal lines. There's considerably more diversity and interest in the 2007 selections, both in medium (quite a few are non-electronic, and there are two plain old songs) and in the moods. Among the most memorable tracks are haunting electronic pieces by Brad Decker and Al Margolis; Journey to the Light by Tuan Hung Le, based in Vietnamese folk traditions; Andrea Vigani's sparkling Post scripta; and John Pitts' Nancarrowian 60 Second Fantasy VII. The terrific concept and the quality of many of the miniatures make this a CD that should be of interest to fans of new music.
Severnside Inaugurual Recital, Peter jacobs (piano)
Dunelm Records DRD0238 [78.22]
£10.95 Tel: 01457 855313; www.dunelm-records.co.uk
John France MusicWeb International
John Pitts’ music reminds me of Herbert Howells’ Lambert’s Clavichord; not in idiom so much as his ‘picking up’ an older style of keyboard composition and re-presenting it for our times. One ‘Aire’ and two ‘Fantasys’ are given here. The former relying on ‘tune’ whilst the latter owes more to ‘pattern’. Fantasy 5 is based on a prelude by Bach. This is lovely music to listen to and shows a deep absorption of earlier styles but with a large degree of originality added for good measure.
...Aside from the Gurney the highlights for me are the Self, the Warren and the Pitts!
Calum MacDonald International Record Review - October 2005
Three Pieces - an Aire and two Fantasies by John Pitts (b.1976) are intensely pleasant music with a serene rhythmic sense and a sure harmonic ear.
Colin Scott-Sutherland MusicWeb International
John Pitts’ selection from his decorative Aires and Fantasies is more companionable – the 2nd Fantasy (his No 5) based enigmatically on a Bach Prelude, with some rich and evocative chords. I would have liked to hear more of this music.
A Recital By Two Pianists, Steve Kings & Christopher Northam
DUNELM RECORDS DRD0243 [73:14]
£10.95 Tel: 01457 855313; www.dunelm-records.co.uk
Ian Milnes Musicweb international
The only work for piano duet – four hands on one piano – is by John Pitts, the secretary of the Severnside Composers’ Alliance, and his short minimalist Changes is great fun, with players in such great command that quaver patterns of 14 against 15 sound to provide no difficulties – amazing!
Very well recommended.
The Naxos Book of Carols, Tonus Peregrinus
Book and CD £9.95 Naxos Carols
Simon Halsey new-classics.co.uk
For this inspiring new album, the composer Antony Pitts has made arrangements that refresh the tunes of well-known carols and puts them into four narrative sequences to tell the complete Christmas story. The carols, one chosen for each day in Advent, range from some of our most famous tunes to less familiar mediaeval items, as well as brand new music that includes a delightful setting of ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ by John Pitts.