Heartbreaker

Carlos Barba

Missy Mazzoli’s Heartbreaker is a complex and rhythmic solo piano experience dominated by repeating tremolos.  I had to listen to the piece many times to be able to absorb and understand what was happening musically.  At first, it sounded complex and rhythmically repetitive, but after careful listening I was able to appreciate how Mazzoli was developing and exploring the main motive. The tremolo is repeated and transferred between the voices that are present in the thick texture. The repeating motives begin in the middle register of the piano, but as the piece progresses they are heard in the upper and lower registers in single notes and chords. 

The texture and the harmonies are very thick and dense. There are many voices constantly competing for the listener’s attention; I definitely perceive this as polyphonic. I could not hear a clear tonal center throughout the piece, but it definitely has a minor and dissonant sound overall. Most of Heartbreakeris made up of long pedals in the low register with shifting harmonies in the middle and upper registers and single notes being struck spontaneously in the high range. The accompaniment is mostly made up of chords played in eighth notes behind the repeating 16thor 32ndnote tremolos. There are no clear melodies that can be recalled or sung easily. This is definitely a piece that is driven and defined by rhythm. The form is through-composed; there are no cadences or clear definition of sections. 

I believe it is nearly impossible for someone without a strong classical background or education to learn and perform this piece. There are various technical aspects that are hard to execute and there are many voices that have to be played at the same time. This piece also covers the entire range of the keyboard with constant leaps by both hands. The agitated and rhythmic-driven virtuosic character reminds me of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s solo piano pieces. The complex and sophisticated harmonies and shifting tonal centers remind me of Alexander Scriabin’s style. I don’t know if these Russian composers have influenced Mazzoli at all, but it evident that she has a clear and thorough understanding of the classical piano tradition. 

Ambiguity is a word that would effectively describe many qualities and aspects of this piece. There is ambiguity in form, melody, tonal center, texture, and phrasing. The only elements that are constant and clear are the repeating rhythms throughout the piece. The fact that the rhythmic motive held the whole piece together reminded me of minimalist composers such as Phillip Glass. There are constant changes in harmony but everything else stays very static and changes very little. I really enjoyed the variety of chords and sonorities that Mazzoli incorporated throughout the piece. The extensive use of pedal points, half-steps, unresolved harmonies, repeating rhythmic patterns, through-composed form, and the constantly repeating tremolos are the characteristics that define the sound and overall effect of Heartbreaker.

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