Bloody knuckles can sometimes inspire music

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 29.11.2014

As any honest critic will tell you (if you can find one), writing about contemporary piano  is a long and thorny process requiring multiple hearings or multiple arguments with the composer. By definition, everything is new, and for those of us who play at the piano rather than on it, we sometimes never quite get our minds around the score.

Then along comes Carter Pann with a new CD of his keyboard music interpreted by Florida State University pianist Joel Hastings. It breaks new ground as music but also as a packaged product. In extensive program notes, Pann takes the trouble to elucidate his aims and methods behind the 16 varied, fascinating tracks on this disc, Carter Pann: The Piano’s 12 Sides (Naxos American Classics 8.559751).

Carter Pann 

Pann has found just the right technical level of analysis to render his music accessible to a broad range of listener – professional, wannabe or just music-loving. I have never seen such lucid explanatory notes. Instantly, upon reading him, one feels the contours of each piece, understands how he put his puzzle together and sometimes even grasps what inspired him to put pen to paper.

His titles can seem whimsical but actually are literal, as in The Cheese Grater, a delightful two-step piece triggered by a painful experience with a grater that left him with bloody knuckles. The bouncy structure evokes the composer hopping around the kitchen on one foot while looking for Band-Aids.


Pann is a composer of high repute in the United States, often performed in the Midwest, Southwest and West Coast but not so much elsewhere. His mastery of dissonance and complex Stravinskyesque rhythm places him firmly in contemporary realm. He is underexposed in Europe but I like to think he will make his way over here. His fresh approach would be welcome.

If I had to pigeon-hole him, I would call him the new Frederick Rzewski, another American composer of modernity, whimsy and originality.

Joel Hastings

On this CD, an unusual feature is Pann’s overt tribute to pianist Joel Hastings, described in the notes as possessing “huge helpings of raw piano talent, musical soul and world-class refinement in perfect combination”. The tile set, 12 Sides, was written for Hastings after a chat on the phone. These two musicians bring out the best in each other.

Perhaps the best way to show how Pann opens our mind to his work is to quote a few passages from his notes. 

Figurines --  “This piece is for the fearless musician – the pianist who is willing to control the instrument to serve his/her whim from start to finish. There is nothing elegant about the (embedded) perpetual march which serves as the centerpiece  for the work. You must push yourself to the other side (and your left hand had better be up to the task).”

Le Branle – “Composed in 12/8 time, this fast branle is a moto perpetuo wherein the direction to the performer is ‘more drive, less swagger’. As this weird motor piece pushes further and further ahead there is that sense of a brawl instead of a dance.” 

She Steals Me – “This song, subtitled intermezzo, owes some of its concepts to Schubert and Stravinski. The work is cast as a plaintive Appalachian waltz in A-flat major with occasional chorale-like proclamations.”

Grand Etude-Fantasy – “Every element of this piece is ambitious. Only a masterful pianist familiar with the quick juxtapositions found in more contemporary works can pull it off. I know I will never be able to perform this piece, and that fact fills me with frustration.”

Carter Pann and Joel Hastings have much more music in them. I look forward to further exploration of contemporary sounds from them.

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For Carter Pann's web site, please click here.

For Joel Hastings web site, please click here.

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