The Piano Music of Richard Emsley

Philip Thomas

Three qualities which I value in Richard Emsley’s music are the tendency toward prolonged and sustained lyricism; the creative approach to musical time and its measurement; and the way it provokes me as a pianist to explore the subtleties of touch. Since 1997 Emsley has written a series of piano works simply titled ‘for piano …’, of which for piano 13 is the latest and longest by a considerable measure. These were composed after a break from composition of nearly ten years and represent arguably a simplification of much of the music he had written previously, which was marked by a heightened complexity.

These piano pieces, the characteristics of which were anticipated by Flow Form, Emsley’s first piano work and the last work to be composed before his break from composition, have in common the constant depression of the sustaining pedal. This has two main consequences: firstly, a ‘cloud’ of harmony and resonance is created which colours and shapes each moment and which significantly disorientates any appreciation of a ‘tonal base’. (Incidentally, Emsley generally restricts himself to roughly the upper half of the keyboard’s register, thus keeping the music ‘afloat’ and again avoiding a tonal root). Secondly, the listener’s sense of melodic line is both enhanced by the continuity created by the strings being left to resonate fully and, paradoxically, disturbed by the disparate continuities created by the wide intervallic leaps which can give the impression of two or three superimposed melodic lines. What is clear, however, is that a heightened sense of lyricism are at the heart of this music.

The American composer Christian Wolff once talked of the ‘tendency toward melody’ of his music and also that of John Cage and other experimentalist composers. Much of this music consisted of isolated events separated in time, and which were frequently the result of random or chance operations. Though the musical events in Emsley’s work are generally more connected, it is worth alluding to the fact that the pitches of his lines are randomly generated using a computer, but always within clearly fixed parameters. The lines are still demonstrably lyrical reflecting the very personal and humanistic side to Emsley’s music. They breathe and even soar in an almost late romantic manner though as if dislocated from their context, at once rarefied and detached.

Just as the lines take shape melodically, so also do they move with clearly differentiated temporal energies. for piano 13 demonstrates this well, being at times teeming with a hyper-energy whilst at other times verging towards the totally static (the second section begins with a single note lasting about 11 seconds). Emsley employs a complex rhythmic notation, surely influenced in part by Stockhausen’s innovations in the 1950s and, later, by those of Michael Finnissy, which ensures the absence of a beat for much of the time. This serves to liberate the movement of the line so that it avoids both cliché and the anticipation of traditional phrasing. In combination with the rhythmic notation the notated phrasing serves to further the temporal disorientation.

Despite these intricate complexities, taking a step back and looking at the music as a whole reveals the formal designs to be in fact very simple. Individual pieces do not ‘develop’ as such but instead expand and contract, move faster or slower, show preference to one melodic or rhythmic motive or another. Each moment of a work could be said to encapsulate the whole. It is this approach to form, and the measurement of time, which presents the listener with a mystery. In one sense Emsley’s music is not ‘challenging’ in that it is not difficult – no analytical or historical knowledge is needed to appreciate this beautiful succession of moments (a point which I made with reference to the music of Morton Feldman in a series of concerts last year). However it does challenge our contemplation and experience of time.

Here, the context obviously is musical time, but parallels might be applied to our experience of non-musical time. As in Feldman’s music, the listener is drawn to the beauty and vitality of each moment. Emsley keeps the music alive and retains our involvement in ways such as I have described above. As a performer I am entranced by the intricacies and variety of melodic and rhythmic nuance. These challenge me to respond with an equal variety of touch that I might enhance the life and breath of this strange song.

© Philip Thomas 2003