Changes for 20 nifty fingers; Toccata: Blue Frenzy; Air 1: Gentle Interweaving; Fantasia 1: Clockwork 5/4; Air 2: After Satie; Fantasia 2: On the Westminster Chimes; Air 3: On an anagram; Fantasia 3: Parallel Octaves; Air 4: Sarabande; Fantasia 4: Wind Chimes; Air 5: Calmly Contented; Fantasia 5: Bells in 9/8; Air 6: Modal Twist; Fantasia 6: Half-Second-Hand; Air 7: Cantabile Mist; Fantasia 7: All in a chord
Steven Kings & John Pitts (pianos)
Recorded on 7, 14 & 21 August 2008 in the Auditorium, the Victoria Rooms, Music Department, University of Bristol
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: October 2009
CD No: cd.tp/ipm08
Duration: 78 minutes
John Pitts (born 1976) is a British composer who studied under Adrian Beaumont, Geoffrey Poole, John Casken, John Pickard, Raymond Warren and Robert Saxton. He is a former winner of the Philharmonia Orchestra Martin Musical Scholarship Fund Composition Prize for his Piano Quartet. He has written other chamber pieces, works for Christian worship including hymns and carols, plus incidental music for theatre works and two short operas, “Crossed Wires” and “Three Sliced Mice”. He was Musical Director of the Bristol Savoy Operatic Society (from 2002 to 2003 and again between 2005-2006) and a founding member of the Severnside Composers Alliance.
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. The useful note in the booklet goes some way to explaining his method of music-making. According to the composer, Changes is a “minimalistic counting duel for twenty nifty fingers … a skeleton of a short repeated phrase which gradually fills out and then moves through two enormously tricky sections in which the two pianists have overlapping bars of different lengths.” It may sound simplistic to the ear, but it is undoubtedly difficult for the pianists to play. Pitts describes Toccata as “a tour de force of driving energy based on some wild, jazz-infused harmony and a few simple cells of melodic material which are explored and developed over a nine-minute period: technically demanding, mentally strenuous , the music’s energy is regulated until the final release in the last section…”.
The Airs and Fantasias (seven of each) were written between 1992 and 2007. Pitts describes them thus: “The Airs are essentially melody-dominated and the Fantasias are pieces in free form with a minimalistic use of repeated and rotating patterns … intended to be performed individually or in numbered pairs, or as a complete collection”. Fantasia 2 is performed here on a ‘prepared piano’ with the strategic placing of rulers in predetermined positions.
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”.