I began writing Deal With The Devil during a residency at the Bogliasco Foundation, near Genoa, Italy. I was particularly interested in the music of Genoa’s most famous composer and violinist, Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840), who was the first internationally renowned violin virtuoso. His technique was so astounding that it was rumored that he had made a Faustian deal with the devil, trading his soul for his superhuman violin chops.
Paganini was a major inspiration for the famous piano virtuoso and composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886). When Liszt was 20, he heard the 50 year old violinist play in Paris – an event he credited with changing the course of his musical life. Because my piece was to be for violin, piano and computer, I initially planned to use the virtuoso technique which underlies Paganini’s and Liszt’s music, and to enhance it with real time digital processing.
However, as I studied their music, the piece started to move in a different direction. There is definitely something magical and awe-inspiring about fingers flying across a keyboard or up and down the fingerboard, about notes which fly at superhuman speed or reach stratospheric heights. But the more I immersed myself in the works of Paganini and Liszt, the more I also felt that the extraordinary technique was being used primarily to show off, to impress the audience. Rather than saying “listen to the music,” it’s saying “look at me!”
Viewed from this perspective, this wasn’t the kind of piece I wanted to write. Flashy playing may be awe-inspiring, but there can be something equally magical about a beautiful melody, played with directness and simplicity. And while digital processing may be able to produce sonic effects that even Paganini or Liszt wouldn’t have been able to create, it only really adds to the music if it supports the narrative, the shape and the emotional impact.
So while Deal With The Devil makes use of many of the virtuoso techniques I picked up from studying Paganini and Liszt, it avoids using them simply for the purpose of showing off. And I try to use the digital processing with restraint and purpose. I hope that the half-hour long piece brings you on a musical journey exploring and developing themes, gestures and emotions. Rather than impressing you with dexterity and speed, the goal is to give you a musical experience which can enrich and delight.
In the end, you can decide whether or not virtuosity is necessarily a deal with the devil.