Composer Conversation: Karim Al-Zand

This Saturday, internationally acclaimed pianist Seolyeong Jeong will present a recital that includes familiar works by Beethoven and Schumann alongside Houston composer Karim Al-Zand's Pattern Preludes. Programming a piece that fewer listeners will have heard before presents a special opportunity for all audience members – those who are well versed in the mainstays of the classical piano repertoire will have the pleasure of hearing something new, while those who are not as entrenched in that world will have an opportunity to experience a piece without feeling the weight of decades or centuries of audiences who have heard and judged it before. I had the chance to ask Dr. Al-Zand a few questions about the first book of the Pattern Preludes, which Ms. Jeong will play this Saturday.

Tell me a little about the piece: when did you write it and why?

"I wrote book 1 in 2005 at the request of Calogero Di Liberto, a pianist who was, at the time, a doctoral student at the Shepherd School. (He is currently teaching back in his native Italy.) He recorded the piece shortly after its premiere. These sort of short keyboard “character pieces" (by Chopin, Schumann, Debussy, etc.) have figured prominently in my teaching of harmony, so perhaps that was the impetus for the choice of the prelude."

What is a “pattern prelude”? "Pattern“ pieces abound in the piano literature, pieces constrained by a single idea through which a composer expresses a narrowly focused thought. Patterning is especially well-suited to preludes, which are by convention short, concise and introductory." The “pattern” in question can take different forms, but usually consists of a rhythmic or textural ostinato [a pervasive and repeating musical idea, from an Italian word meaning "obstinate"] of some kind."

How did you incorporate and build on the rich history of repertoire in this genre?

"The first book in particular actually incorporates some references to other preludes which exemplify the genre. The third prelude, in its slow, relentless chromaticism, references Chopin’s Op.24/4; the last prelude in the set is atmospherically linked to some of the Debussy preludes, like La fille aux cheveux de lin [The Girl with the Flaxen Hair] and others. Most obviously, though, the first prelude incorporates all of Bach’s first, C major prelude from the Well Tempered Clavier, which is sort of the “Ur” pattern prelude. My pattern prelude is a kind of gloss on the Bach and begins as the first of my set, just like its progenitor."

How many performances has this piece had?

"Not that many. Maybe 10?"

What do you want audiences to get out of a performance?

"I think what’s nice about short preludes, is that their concision allows for quite varying moods and textures within each one. You don’t need to wait long for something new to discover."

You can read more about the piece and listen to a recording in advance of Saturday's concert at Dr. Al-Zand's website:

The music of Canadian-American composer Karim Al-Zand (b.1970) has been called “strong and startlingly lovely” (Boston Globe). His compositions are wide-ranging, from settings of classical Arabic poetry to scores for dance and pieces for young audiences. His works explore connections between music and other arts, and draw inspiration from diverse sources such as 19th century graphic art, fables of the world, folksong and jazz.

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