How Strange the Change was composed during the very strange period of 2020–21, defined by such new concepts as lockdowns, social distancing and Zoom. While I was delighted to receive a commission for a very colourful ensemble from the energetic and talented Alex Raineri, it was in the context of isolation that much of the work took place.

Erik Griswold

Erik Griswold. Photo © Greg Harm

As sometimes happens to me, a song popped into my head from somewhere deep in my subconscious – Cole Porter’s Ev’ry Time We Say goodbye – which contains the lyric: “There is no love song finer, but how strange the change from major to minor”. Somehow the phrase seemed to encapsulate our current predicament, and I sensed the potential to use major-minor shifts of harmony to reflect on the turbulent mood swings of COVID life. While How Strange the Change is an homage of sorts, it is not an arrangement or quotation. After referencing a few chords from the song, the work quickly departs into my own flights of fancy, with musical phrases often beginning around the skewed tones of a prepared piano and then swirling around an ensemble of flute, clarinet, trumpet and string quartet.

Having worked with Alex on the mass piano pieces 84 Pianos and All’s grist that comes to the mill, I knew he was up for an adventure and keen to experiment with prepared piano. Prepared piano, pioneered by American experimentalist John Cage, is the art of altering the sound of the piano by strategically placing bolts, screws, bits of rubber and other materials between the strings, transforming it into a mini percussion orchestra. My first step in composing How Strange was to design the piano preparations, which set the tonal and harmonic language of the piece. Add to this the string quartet from Camerata – Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra. Having collaborated with them on Love to love your strings, baby (an homage to disco strings) and Hollows out of time, I knew they had the expressive range to move from American songbook to jazz to minimalism, to capture the warm nostalgia of Porter as well as the restless energy of our uncertain times. And finally, the icing on the cake, a wonderful trio of winds featuring Sarah Butler (trumpet), Jemima Drews (flute) and Dario Scalabrini (clarinet) completes the colour palette, giving a kind of Kurt Weill-esque sheen over the top of the musical textures.

The music that emerged from this process is a free-flowing journey through four contrasting movements which are connected by harmonic vignettes. The move from major to minor is a recurring motif throughout and features in many of the themes. The original impetus from Cole Porter’s darkly beautiful song is exploded and reconstituted as An air of spring | When you’re near | I die a little | Major to minor.

Erik Griswold’s How Strange the Change will have its world premiere on 24 July at 1pm at City Workshop, Brisbane, as part of a Brisbane Music Festival concert, also featuring the music of Schubert, Mahler and Strauss