Games of Belief

Tonia Ko
13 min
With extended techniques, muting and harmonics on the strings

Knowing in advance that the premiere of my new work would fall between a Beethoven sonata and the (epic) Liszt sonata, I decided to tackle any “anxiety of influence” before even writing a note. I thought of a composer whose time came between Beethoven and Liszt– namely, Robert Schumann, and specifically, his Kinderzenen Op. 15. I have always been mesmerized by its oscillating, lilting quality. Schumann’s simple figurations and textures, used to evoke childhood innocence, is another feature I paid homage to in Games of Belief.

My piece starts by confronting an acoustical reality of the piano: every key is connected to a long metal string that contains all harmonic partials of the fundamental note. By isolating these overtones, the performer essentially creates a series of arpeggios, a familiar trope to so much of piano music. This concept of arpeggiation, of leaping up and down the keys, became a parameter that I freely manipulated by condensing and stretching intervals.

Games of Belief is a loose set of variations over series of chords that expand outward form the opening cluster. Even as the texture changes dramatically, these chords, serve as anchors for the listener. At the end of the piece, a descending melodic line guides our return to the acoustic overtones of the opening. But instead of being activated directly on the string, the pianist uses the sostenuto pedal to let them ring sympathetically through vibrations.

The music is constantly striving– sometimes violently– and expanding in range, but at its center is a lyrical core. Ultimately, the only overt reference I made to the Schumann is perhaps the concept of child-like “games”. There are games of distance, where I play with the idea of close-up versus far away sounds. I make a little “game” out of temperament, where the inside-piano harmonics don’t quite match the tuning of the keys. However, the biggest “game” is on me. As a composer, I try to make a personal sound world out of “new” timbres and structures, but it is just an effort to tap into the same essence of expression that motivated all composers before me.