Improv Sonata, 2009

In June of 2009, the Bloomingdale School of Music presented a composition of mine which I called ‘Sonata for Improvised Piano’. An excerpt appears above. The piece exists in two versions, one completely written out, and the other written with a combination of graphic and conventional notation. The piece was designed as an entry way into composition for classically trained pianists who may never have improvised before. In this particular concert, the piece was presented three times. Bathsheba Marcus Conley and Katy Luo, both fine pianists with an interest in contemporary composition,  each played an interpretation of the piece. I played the piece in its written-out version. Neither Bathsheba nor Katy had ever improvised publicly, and neither had heard the other or me prior to the concert. To my ears they were both a smashing success, and it was great fun for me to hear 3 entirely different but related performances.

The program notes follow, as well as 3 audio versions of the first movement.

Composition Notes

The 3 pieces all began life as improvisations. Over time themes emerged – but not necessarily musical ones. For example, early in the development of the first movement, I became interested in a childhood memory of what may have been a migraine headache which partially blocked my vision for a short period of time. I was young enough not to have had language for this, but listening to my improvisations brought back these memories which I had not thought of for years. I began improvising to verbal directions and images, such as the following:

Trying to see

quietly feeling your way



catch your breath

poised to dive… Go!

You’re safe

step lightly

almost lose your balance

falling awake

drag your feet

The finished pieces are the result of a kind of dialogue between improvising through these images, and composing through them.

Performance Notes

The 3 pieces are separate, but together constitute one “dream” with 3 episodes. The verbal directions are meant to be the main guide through the piece. They do not form an entirely coherent narrative, but flow from one image to the next as in dreams. They are a combination of visual image, feelings and active-verb directions. To play the pieces, the performers are following the verbal directions and images, as well as using musical material I have provided. There are specific musical instructions to be carried out, which appear in the score in boxes, and suggested material which appears between the boxes as the player reads through. It is as though the boxes are “islands”, and the player’s job is to swim from musical island to musical island expressing the verbal directions as she goes.

In each improvised movement, there is a passage written in standard notation which I ask the performer to play exactly as written. Since this afternoon’s concert will contain 3 performances, these will be “islands” for the listener to grab on to as well!


Here are three versions of the first movement from that performance. The first two are improvised, the third is from the written-out version. This movement is quiet and slow moving, with lots of open space.




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