Stories about Verbs

Stories are in chronological order, with newest stories at the end. Use the index at right to find new stories.

The (short) Story of Verbs

In 2006, Keith Porter-Snell asked his friend, composer Kathleen Ryan, to create for him a set of 24 preludes for piano left hand alone. Searching for a unifying theme, Kathleen settled on the idea of verbs, one for each prelude, because every verb conveys an individual quality of energy and motion.

She composed the first 12 preludes in 2006 & 2007, and Keith premiered them in Farmington, New Mexico, in November 2007, at the Professional Music Teachers of New Mexico conference. PMTNM and the Music Teachers National Association commissioned Kathleen to compose the second 12 preludes (Book 2), which she did in 2008. Keith premiered Book 2 in Los Alamos, NM, at the PMTNM conference in November 2008.

Kathleen only consulted the definitions of the verbs she chose to compose after completing each book. She was surprised to discover that often the music is clearly portraying a lesser-known definition.

But why?

In the beginning, there was piano music for two hands.

Then, there was piano music for one hand.

Or maybe the other way around; who really knows?

But why?

Well, sometimes a pianist wants to develop their left hand technique; left hand repertory is a sure-fire way to accomplish that!

Or, sometimes a pianist is justifiably proud of their monumental left hand technique, and just needs to show off a bit. (We’re looking at you, Godowsky, with your Chopin Etudes arranged for left hand alone.)

Sometimes something happens to the other hand or arm. Paul Wittgenstein is a prime example here, and his desire to continue performing after losing his right arm in the First World War led him to commission works for piano left hand, including Ravel’s famous Concerto for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra.

Sometimes a composer needs a challenge. Brahms, step up & take your bow.

Sometimes, more than one of these reasons applies.

More than one of these reasons applies here, now, with Verbs, 24 Preludes for Piano Left Hand, composed by Kathleen Ryan for concert pianist Keith Porter-Snell.

Act 1, Scene 1

Setting: lunchtime, a cozy Mexican restaurant, Santa Fe, New Mexico, February 2006.

Keith: I love your music. I’d like you to write me a sonata, with the third movement for left hand alone.

Kathleen: Sure, I think I can do that.

a few minutes later, still over lunch

Keith: Actually, what I’d really like is an entire sonata for left hand alone.

Kathleen: Okay. I can probably do that. Let me think about it.

a few days later, now by phone

Keith: Actually, what I’d really like is a set of 24 preludes, one in each key. Some can be very short, you know; Chopin had shorter preludes mixed in among the larger ones.

Kathleen: Cool! That will be fun!

Scene 2

a few days later, in Kathleen’s studio

Kathleen muttering to herself: Twenty-four. Hmm… 24 short pieces. What are they about? How do I figure out where I am in the collection? I need something, some reason to make them different from each other. Hmm… Oh I know: VERBS! So, the first Verb, obviously, is Begin. Let’s just see what that sounds like.

But wait!

Kathleen composed the first Verb: Begin.

Keith liked it.

But he didn’t like it for the first Verb. He asked Kathleen to create another Verb for the first prelude in the set.

So, Kathleen composed the verb Wait.

It seemed like the obvious choice.

Verbs as Music

~ a post from the composer ~

What is the sound of shatter? Broken glass or broken dreams?

Having waited, begun, played, and closed, how do we begin again? Do we beckon or do we bloom?

Why does push make the composer and pianist push at each other?

Why does the composer insist that the music stays the difficult way to play, rather than making the one simple change to the main motive that would have it fit the pianist’s hand so much better!!!???

The answers to these questions are found, I believe, in the music I wrote for Keith Porter-Snell. Possibly I’m deluded, of course, but still I believe that the answers can be heard in the music itself.

At least, I heard the answers for me in the music itself, as I was composing it.

And within the week, Keith’s magnificent recording of my music will be available in CD, with downloads available very soon thereafter. Which means: if you like piano music and you like unusual music and you like collaborative music (because I would never have considered this project if Keith hadn’t requested it!) — then you might very much like Verbs: 24 Preludes for Piano Left Hand.

Which leads to one final question: what is the sound of one hand playing?

I think you’ll be surprised and pleased. (Hmm… new verbs… hmm… )

Stay tuned.

(cross-posted from

A big day for us

Verbs CDs are expected to arrive momentarily. To celebrate:

Bloom mp3

Performed by Keith Porter-Snell.
Music © 2008 Indigo Mesa Music. Performance © 2014 Indigo Mesa Music.

If you are in San Francisco

you will be able to hear Keith Porter-Snell perform Book One of Verbs this coming Sunday, 4/13, at the Old First Concerts. All needed information is at the link.

San Francisco Classical Music Examiner Stephan Smoliar previews the concert here.

Music for an Elegy

The music Keith chose to honor the life of his father, Alan Keith Porter Snell:





New from old; or the story of Tangle

Kathleen Ryan; cross-posted from Life according to Piano

I came across something interesting (to me, at least) in my composition notebooks today: my first sketches & notes for Tangle, one of the preludes in Verbs. It’s dated 5/24/08 — no wonder I was panicking about Verbs. Keith had to premiere all of Book 2, for which I had been commissioned by PMTNM & MTAC, in early November that year, and if I remember correctly, Tangle was only the second of the twelve to be written. Oops!

Tangle sketch

Tangle sketch

Anyway the top 2 staves show the basic tango pattern, in 2 versions of F# something. Or, in a kind of F# major and a kind of F# minor (there’s a tonality clarification below). Most interesting to me are the words on the right side of the page:

  • sexy
  • sly
  • two voices tangling
  • not too busy
  • spare
  • floating melody above the tango bass
  • not long

As I remember it, I knew those things about the piece almost as soon as I settled on the verb tangle and the key F# minor and the tango bass. And then I proceeded to create the music that fit my criteria.

It is very odd how often having more ”rules” makes it easier for me to compose. I’m no longer floating in a sea of charming ideas, I’m doing this one particular thing, which in this case was Tangle. I remember Tangle as coming together with ease, and I still think of it as one of my strongest pieces compositionally. Certainly the clarity of the process in creating this piece gave me the confidence to move forward in the other pieces I had been toying with for months.

The ending is the next music sketched below the 2 versions of the bass. Something forgotten, which actually explains much of the clarity of process: I knew from the beginning where exactly this music is heading, all I had to do was find its path there.

The other thing I find odd in my sketches is that so much is missing. Below the ending, I’ve started sketching an introduction. This version was rejected very almost immediately. On the facing page, there are the actual first 2 intro measures; measures 3-4, which move the music onto the C# augmented chord that acts as dominant throughout the prelude and sets up the final “wrong” notes, is not sketched anywhere.  One other motive is sketched, and then … nothing.

I remember that I was putting music into Sibelius simultaneously with sketching it on paper, but when I look at the lack of notes on the page in the sketchbook — in all the pieces, not just Tangle — it is very unsettling. As if somehow music ended up in Sibelius that I didn’t have anything to do with. I look at the few notes sketched for nearly all the pieces and wonder: how did that turn into _________ piece? I would not be able to reconstruct the preludes from the bits I wrote down on paper.

But I might make up some interesting new music from them.

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