In Pianoscapes 48, coming up on 26th June, I’ll be premiering my transcription of no.17 from Keith Jarrett’s amazing album Book of Ways.
I’ll let jazz writer Ian Carr introduce this album – this is from his biography of Jarrett KJ- The Man And His Music, published in 1992.
‘In July 1986 Jarrett recorded Book of Ways, a double album of clavichord improvisations, during a European tour with the standards trio. Once again, the recording was done in trying circumstances. Jarrett recalls: “The clavichord album was done on a day off between two trio concerts, having gotten no sleep again, of course, having been in a hotel where Rosie was ready to punch out the head clerk for twice giving us rooms that were not quiet. We had to fly to Stuttgart, and I just went in there and hoped that the instruments would be alright, and sat and placed them in pairs and had them tuned. And I said, “Manfred, you let me know when you’re ready…” This is like the story of our whole relationship in the studio. They’re doing their thing; I’m doing my thing, and at some point I say “How are you doing?” And they say “fine, would you like to check it…” And in this case I go to the pair of instruments. I played and then I stopped, and then sometimes I’d go and listen and sometimes I didn’t, and at a certain point I said “That’s it”.”
Jarrett gave a copy of Book of Ways to Christopher Hogwood, who said it was ‘very interesting – very obviously taken from ideas of the clavichord’s period’. In fact, this superb album is a rich blend of elements from classical music with the Spirits area and various folk or ethnic elements. The nineteen pieces cover a wide spectrum of music-making, including lovely melodies, excellent harmonic sequences, intensely rhythmic pieces, brooding and meditative ones, faster pieces with much movement. If it had all been pre-composed it would have been impressive enough, but the fact that it was all improvised in a day is really astonishing – the plentitude of pure genius! Jarrett makes great use of the clavichord’s tonal possibilities, exploiting its plasticity of sound and bringing out the resonance of single notes and of chord clusters. The eighth piece is all single notes resounding and bending through all the registers – a five-and-a-half minute tour de force. There is a buoyancy and airiness about much of this music and a tremendous sureness of artistic and emotional touch.”
, No.17, which is the one I’ve just finished transcribing, is a joyous Baroque-inspired piece full of counterpoint – almost like a set of variations on a theme or a harmonic pattern, moving between major and minor and closely related keys. In fact it reminds me as much of music from the Elizabethan or Jacobean period – perhaps it could be a pavane or galliard from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (the primary source for keyboard music from that period)… Either way, it’s such a life-affirming outpouring of intertwining lines that I’ve been fascinated by it since I first heard it c.1990.
So – the story…
Around 1990 or '91, as a hairy Music undergrad in London, what should I find one day in a CD shop but a double set of Keith Jarrett improvisations for clavichord. What an unusual idea..! I’d been introduced to Jarrett via fellow student Andy, most notably at a house party at which I first heard The Koln Concert album, perhaps Jarrett’s most famous recording and the one that ushered in the concept of solo improvised piano concerts back in the early Seventies. I was already a big Keith Tippett fan, but this was different: Jarrett was now definitely on my radar.
By this point I’d acquired the means of playing CDs at home – in my first year as a student, I was still in the world of vinyl and cassettes, and I had to go the Library to listen to my one and only CD (Arvo Part’s first release in the West – the life-changing ‘Tabula Rasa’ album, also on the ECM label) – and I did spend a lot of time there, studying that Arvo CD in great detail and just soaking up its new musical language / basking in its sheer beauty and poignancy... Back in Yr 1, living in Halls of Residence, I’d balance this listening with the vinyl pop and crackle of ‘Chartres’ (Paul Giger – again, on ECM) – more new sounds – and ‘Book of Days’ (Meredith Monk, ECM again…)… alongside of course the blues, rock, psychedelia and other music from my ‘previous existence’...
Keith Jarrett's ‘Book of Ways’ fitted right into my life and musical trajectory at exactly the right time. It was / is a treasure trove and sounds, textures and ideas; it overflows with inventiveness, groove, references to a range of musical traditions; it inspires the listener to learn more about the instruments, about music, and to go out and get improvising themselves. At least, it certainly had that effect on me.
The instrument above is a clavichord that I met in an Air'B'n'B that I stayed in while working for Damon Albarn (as keyboard player in 'Monkey: Journey To The West' at the ROH, Covent Garden, summer 2008). I've had encounters with harpsichords new and old throughout my years as a pianist; dating back to the 1980s when I first played the music of Bach and Rameau, and most recently in the Keyboard room of the incredible Museum of Musical Instruments in Brussels - here's a selection of spinets and virginals -
Over the 40 years I've played a considerable amount of repertoire written for these instruments – as well as Bach & Rameau I've explored the music of English composers William Byrd, John Bull, Giles Farnaby… and the Italian & French masters Scarlatti & Couperin... and I've found various contemporary pieces written for early keyboard instruments – by composers like Ligeti, Gorecki and Schnittke – to be equally fascinating.
So - to come back to Book of Ways. At last I've completed this transcription, started with pen and paper in 2002 and finished using music notation software 20 years later. Full circle!
And it seems that this won't be the only transcription in the concert: I'd also decided to include 'The Cone Gatherers' by Graham Fitkin, a piece I've played for over 20 years now... and 'The Long March' by Vangelis, as a tribute (he passed away last month). Both of these were selected for the concert before I realised -
- I have transcribed both of these in the past, long before acquiring the 'bonafide' scores all these years later. In fact, prior to transcribing The Cone Gatherers in 1999, I had already transcribed (in 1996) the rest of side 2 of Fitkin's 1991 album 'Flak', which is where I first heard this music. The scores weren't publicly available at this time, so it was the only way I could play these pieces - and then I sent my work to Mr Fitkin himself for him to check over!
And as for the Vangelis piece - 'The Long March' was one of the first pieces of music that I ever tried to work out and notate, back in the mid-1980s. Weird!!
Full circle indeed...
19 June 2022
Pianoscapes 48 - tickets available now. See the Pianoscapes page on this website.