24 Preludes (1992) Christopher Hobbs
Album on Experimental Music Catalogue Bandcamp page:
Score available from Experimental Music Catalogue:
To many experimental and curious composers of piano music in the last 50 years the weight of the core canon of what we call Classical Music has seemed a problem in need of redress.
It has always felt to me, as such a composer, that there is a need to acknowledge the canon in some way, mainly through either confrontation, a pursuit of some significant alternative language, a kind of agreement to disagree, or a warm embrace.
Some, especially English, experimental musicians from the 1960’s onwards took a different approach altogether, finding another way through the Classical canon in some or all of their music.
In fact, referencing the canon became an act of experiment, and notably referencing the work of lesser known composers, that is, those on the edges of or well outside the canon. Along with their exploratory experimental work, these musicians were drawn to the work of Erik Satie, as John Cage had done, but they went much much further than Cage. Think Busoni, Karg-Elert, Alkan, Szymanowski, Grainger, Ketèlby and nearer to the present day, Sorabji.
To my limited personal knowledge, the composers who particularly drew on such diverse and sometimes obscure sources were John White (especially in his Piano Sonatas) and Chris Hobbs.
By the way, Erik Satie is quite well known now, but the mainstream music history narrative still paints him as the “minor composer of major influence”. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, Satie was not acknowledged by the mainstream Classical music world, and it was only the most adventurous who understood Satie’s significance.
That idea of referencing the past while making music very much of the present day is to be found in the magnificent collection of 24 Preludes for piano by Chris Hobbs from 1992, now available, recorded by the composer on Experimental Music Catalogue. The score is also available.
At risk of losing my cool, I say: Wow! You have to hear this. This is one of the most interesting and absorbing (sets of) compositions of the last half century. Why do I say that? Well, the form of 24 Preludes has echoes of, and has roots in, the main canon of classical music tradition. Chopin and Debussy wrote sets of 24 Preludes, for example.
Chris Hobbs’ set of preludes follows the Chopin model of one prelude in each of the 12 major and 12 minor keys. Also, in the composition process, a title for each Prelude emerged and Chris Hobbs added the title to the end of the piece, in brackets. Just as Debussy did with his two books of preludes. So those are two ways in which the canon is acknowledged.
24 Preludes is like a catalogue of possibility, suggesting and making reference to centuries of keyboard music, forms and styles of music, including the less well known composers already mentioned (the album notes mention Alkan and Busoni). There is an extra level revealed when you have the opportunity to play the music yourself. Because, not only does this set of Preludes make reference to forms and styles, but also techniques, making this brilliant pianists’ music too. This is so enjoyable to play because, in terms of note patterns, fingering patterns and techniques, it is clear that they reference the history of technique as well.
There’s a sense of physical recognition.
But, for me, the reason I suggest an important place for the 24 Preludes in the piano repertoire and take them beyond the ordinary is in the way they reference those lesser known composers. I have found Busoni and Alkan in here, but, the Nocturne, Prelude 13 is a tribute to Koechlin… isn’t it? Quite honestly, when I made these discoveries and accepted my uncertainty, I accepted that I may be way off the mark.
The references and associations go beyond the Classical canon too. There’s a terrific jazz waltz, and Prelude 7, the Tango, is my favourite (to play, that is); this Tango is so sparse it only has the essential elements, as if a ruthless editor stripped some of it away. Or, at least that’s how it seems to me.
There is so much more to say but, for me, the reason I claim a high status for this set of Preludes is that, with all their tributes to other composers and to piano styles and techniques, they are very much music of the(ir) present. So yes, I stand by my claim: [one of]* the most interesting, enjoyable, significant and absorbing piano compositions of the last half century. My ears and my fingers agree on this.
*suggest removal of this.
Jim Simm (April 2020)