Shards: Piano Music of Jonathan Pieslak

A friend recently lent me three CDs of new American piano music, knowing my love of American music, new music, and of course piano. So he rightly guessed that these CDs would be perfect for me. The first one I listened to is called Shards: Piano Music of Jonathan Pieslak, and the performer is Robert Auler. It was released by Albany Records in 2014.

Four main pieces make up the recording. The title piece, Shards, comes first. It is very difficult, worthy to be included on any program. The liner notes say that in the pianist’s recitals, this work has held its own in audience opinion even when played along with classic, well-known pieces, and I believe it. It is a very interesting piece, with huge contrasts throughout, portrayed very well by Auler.

The second piece on the recording, Bhakti (1), unburdening, I did not like at all. Its implied Hindu words and motives combined with the pre-recorded, new-age style instrumental track just aren’t my style. If that is your thing, then this piece is for you.

The third piece, American Atmospheres, is a delightful series of eleven programmatic etudes, with titles such as “Solar flares,” “Vertigo wedge,” and “A waltz between the sun and the moon.” My favorite was number IX., “Cuban carnaval.” Its Caribbean rhythms immediately reminded me of Ricky Ricardo.

My favorite on this CD, however, was the last one. The title of Prednisomnia immediately caught my eye, mainly because I am allergic to prednisone. So what on earth did that title mean? The liner notes by the composer explained. “In the fall of 2010 I was diagnosed with a kidney disorder of unknown origin but well-known treatment. A very high dose of prednisone (a steroid) became my daily ritual and until September 2012, the drug dictated my lifestyle. In Prednisomnia (2011), I try to musically convey the sensation that one’s mind is forcibly controlled by a drug that permits one to witness his or her uncharacteristic behavior, but restrains one from being able to change it.” I was intrigued before even hearing the piece. Due to my recent struggle with hormonally-induced depression, I know exactly the feeling he is talking about – watching your behavior but not being able to change it. So I was fascinated to hear how a piece like this would sound. It delivered from the beginning. Erratic chords and rhythms combined with a constantly whirling string of oddly-accented sixteenth-notes, interspersed with pounded chords and tasteful glissandi really expressed what the liner notes discuss. When the dynamics and texture drop down, it creates just as much of a sense of dread of what is coming next as it does a sense of relief that the last mood swing is over. And sure enough, the loud hectic section returns. At about halfway through the piece, the mood changes to generally quiet and brooding. There is more hope in this section, perhaps portrayed even by some a few major chords. These are followed by some quiet but obsessive repeated notes and figures. One more loud section pushes its way into the piece, then it ends on a very soft, low note. The version I heard can be found here.  The piece performed with its original scoring (bass clarinet, cello, violin, and piano) can be found here. It is even more fascinating, due to the extended techniques employed and the various timbres.

Let it be known, however, that for the Christian struggling with depression or any mentality that this piece might represent, the fight doesn’t end on a quiet, low note of despair, but eventually in a shout of victory at the foot of the Cross.


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