More or Less

with Alexandra Kremakova

More or Less is a set of piano variations written in collaboration with the pianist Alexandra Kremakova for the John Halford Competition at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in 2014. Drawing on a visual conceit of zooming in and out of maps, the variations proceed in two directions from the theme – one set becoming more and more complex, adding runs and spreading out across the full range of the keyboard, while the other set becomes progressively simpler, reducing down to the simplest form that can still convey the theme – four held notes.

Duration: ca 5 minutes

The collaboration

More or Less developed over the course of about four months, starting from initial broad discussions and proceeding through regular meetings, sometimes just talking, sometimes mixing discussion with playing viol duets (Alexandra plays treble viol, I play tenor), but mostly at the piano.

The idea behind the theme was to explicitly use intervals which we both love – perfect fifths for Alexandra, tritones for me, octaves for both of us. There’s a certain reflection, I feel, of our shared enjoyment of early music in this theme. Alex’s response to the theme was that its sparseness reminded her a little of reductive analysis, and she suggested that it could be the basis of a set of variations. I was already feeling that the theme had a sort of kinship with Erik Satie’s Vexations, and it seemed that variations might be a useful way to handle the material and that this might provide scope to explore both our shared interests and different ways of thinking about music.

The challenge was to find a way into the piece that would give the variations a purpose. I feel that many sets of variations quickly devolve into showing off technique, and we both wanted to avoid that. Alex also likes to find a narrative or visual aspect of pieces she plays which she uses to create her interpretation.

From the idea of reductive analysis and the simplification of complex ideas, I drew a mental parallel with the way Google Maps works: you zoom in to see the detail of streets, local landmarks and businesses; zoom out for context, reducing the place you just saw in such detail to a mere dot connected to other dots. From this came the idea of two sets of variations, interleaving but with the conceptual distance between them widening as the piece progresses.

With this concept in mind and with the variations sketched out, we worked together over a number of sessions to make the piece a more coherent whole. In particular, Alex suggested ways to make the music more pianistic, especially in the more complex variations; I worked to adjust the music to create a more lively harmonic world, within its very static parameters, principally by interpolating a cycle of fifths as interjections of single notes between each variation.

I also adjusted the opening of Variation 2a to be a direct quote from Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, in reference to Liszt being the composer Alex was playing the first time I heard her perform.

I’m still not a huge fan of variations (although I have now discovered exceptions to this rule, most notably Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated) but I’m really glad to have worked on this piece with Alex, and I feel that together we have managed to create a work which reflects our different approaches as well as tying together our common interests.

from the explanatory notes in the score.

Since its first performance at Bastard Assignments, Alexandra Kremakova has also performed More or Less twice at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and at the Barbican.

Preview the score of More or Less (click on the score to open full-screen):