Stars & Stripes Forever!
Great American Piano
About the music:
When PBS approached me about doing a second television special I joked that PBS would no longer stand for "Public Broadcasting System" but instead "Paul Bisaccia Special". I suggested doing a program of piano music from a distinctly American point of view and this CD is the logical outgrowth of that television program.
American piano music is like America itself- full of crazy contradictions, humor, irony, inventiveness, boundless optimism and creativity. American composers approached the piano in a way that was radically different from their European counterparts. This is not polite music. As George Gershwin wrote, "This music should be made to snap and at times to cackle." For a concert pianist like myself who is used to playing the music of Chopin, Liszt, and Beethoven, this is certainly a different type of musical collection. I found myself going back to the music of my childhood for inspiration. One of my earliest musical memories is of Stars and Stripes Forever. As a preschooler I quickly learned how to operate the family phonograph and to my parents dismay I would hop out of bed at 5 am to blast this particular Sousa march. I couldn't resist coming up with my own version of this greatest of all American marches.
The first piece I ever played at the piano was Yankee Doodle. It happens to be the Connecticut State Song and the great composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk incorporated it during the Civil War, (along with the Star Spangled Banner and Hail Columbia) into a fantasy called Union. Gottschalk considered Union his contribution to the war effort, and he played it all over the northeastern United States. In 1864 he played it for the President and Mrs. Lincoln.
When I was growing up what I really wanted to play was ragtime. This music was perhaps the first uniquely American contribution to world music and more than anyone else Scott Joplin , the king of ragtime started the ball rolling with his classic rags. This music has affected popular music up to the present day and you can easily hear the influence of ragtime on all the composers from Bowman's Twelfth Street Rag, to Gershwin's Swanee, Zez Confrey's Kitten on the Keys and Irving Berlin's Puttin' on the Ritz.
I want to make a special note about the Gershwin arrangements. These are Gershwin's own personal arrangements as he recorded them for Columbia records in 1926. Thus these piano performances are actually transcriptions (excepting Swanee) taken from his recorded performances on disc. Of course back in 1926 editing of records was impossible, so we know without a doubt exactly how Gershwin played these pieces.
So much of this music has entered the permanent public consciousness. What American youngster doesn't know Take Five, Linus and Lucy, or the Pink Panther. As a kid growing up in the 60's this was the music I played for fun.
Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues is a bold commentary on the American experience. The music is a daring depiction of the sound created by the machines in a cotton mill. (The direction by the composer is to play this music "expressionless and machinelike.") Playing this music reminds me of the movie "Norma Rae" in which Sally Field plays a union organizer for a textile factory. At one point in the movie the din of the machines in the mill is all but deafening ? and then suddenly all the looms are shut down by the mill workers as protest. The silence of the machines at this moment is one of the great effects in film history, just as when the machines finally stop in the music. This leads to a blues sequence, some diabolical contrapuntal writing and finally the actual song "Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues" quoted completely. My grandmother worked as a child in the mills at the turn of the century and she told me that the effect created by this music reminded her exactly of what it was like in these mills.
Finally, I wanted to have something contemporary, American, and written in the 21st century to play for this CD. When the wonderful composer Tom Schuttenhelm heard I was going to do a television program for PBS on American piano music he graciously consented to write a new piano piece for me. I played the third movement only for the television show , but here on the CD I am happy to play all three movements. I find these pieces to be sparse in texture, but rich in content. Delicate, elegant and deliberately beautiful.
Paul Bisaccia, Provincetown Massachusetts
Composing for the piano can be a daunting task. The sheer quantity of material written for the instrument , not to mention the quality, as well as its association with the greatest composers of the past is second to none. The Bach inventions, Beethoven Sonatas, Chopin ballades, Debussy preludes are some of the greatest music the world has ever known. But I wasn't only writing pieces for the piano. I was writing them for the pianist, more specifically, Paul. He has a distinct touch and brightness to his sound, and these pieces are as much "about" him as for him. I distinctly recall one concert where I was seated opposite the piano, making only half of him visible from his head to his elbows. Unable to see his hands working the keys I just shut my eyes. The music was so crisp and alive. I had this vision of the keys jumping out at him and as they did he was slapping them back into place. Paul also has an uncanny ability to make everything sound as if it is being made up right there in front of you. The spontaneity and excitement that he injects into every phrase is fantastic. He simply dances with the piano.