18 RAGA ÉTUDES FOR PIANO
Over the past year Garrett has been working with pianist GraceANN Cummings on a set of new works for piano, seven of which premiered at Seattle’s Wayward Music Series (November, 2019). Although these pieces may appear to resemble classical pedagogical études, their innovative process and product introduce a unique method of compositional structure to the world of music.
Throughout his composing career, Fisher has studied and combined elements from multiple global musical traditions to create a signature style that offers a new lens for mythical and historical material. Rather than determine every last note in isolation, Garrett has a highly collaborative process, often eliciting input from producing team members, and even performers, early on in each creative process.
Many years ago, Fisher began employing ragas – a melodic framework for improvisation in Indian classical music – to advance narrative aspects of his operas that incorporate each musician’s unique interpretation. This freedom is foreign to most western musicians, and requires great trust and extensive practice. No two ragas, or their live performances, are ever the same.
Fisher has recently taken his raga work to a new experimental level, creating a framework for 72 expanding or contracting modes assigned to 12 “seasons” (including early/mid/late) of the year and six times of day, which together offer a comprehensive spectrum of musical moods. Fisher has used 18 of these modes as seeds for the Raga Études for Solo Piano. Although he trained as a classical pianist, this is his first official composition for the instrument.
Each raga étude is a silent blueprint – a set of visual descriptions that intentionally disguise Fisher’s inspiration in order to foster the performer’s unique discovery process and interpretation. These études are more similar to a stage play, or rules for a board game, than traditional musical compositions. Neither fully represents the intended creation; both depend on a player’s selection from multiple, if not innumerable, interpretive possibilities, yet each execution reflects a recognizable essence of the game or play.
Like most performers encountering Fisher’s ragas for the first time, Cummings was initially daunted. This would entail a different investment from the typical hours of rigorous practice and performative micro-choices for the notes and dynamics on the page. This would be a deeply creative, generative, and often challenging process.
Often through trial-and-error, Cummings worked through Fisher’s blueprints for each raga étude to discern authorial intent, buried within a handful of straightforward musical parameters (like time signatures, chordal structures, harmonic modulations, and rhythmic motifs) as well as more abstract instructions such as “unfolding,” “sparky”, or “orbiting”.
During this journey of discovery, following the progression from one étude to the next, Cummings began to articulate each theme, emotion, and meaning for herself – adding the human element to Fisher’s silent, formal blueprint. Only then was she able to determine an approach to performance that would finally give the composition sound.
If Fisher established the “nature” – the DNA – of the Raga Études for Solo Piano, Cummings provided the “nurture” for this unique execution of the work’s world premiere.
-Ken Cerniglia, Dramaturg