Furball Elise is a piece about discontinuities in the brain: when we know things so well that they have become absorbed into a generalized sphere of all-embracing consciousness. A pianist is supposed to get up on stage and play Beethoven's Albumblatt für Elise, but he seems to be unable to get through the piece, because he knows it so well that it has become parts of a kind of Romantic stew that includes every famous potboiler ever written. Grieg's Piano Concerto, the opening of Wagner's Tristan, the Brahms Tragic Overture all seem to burst forth from the same "Elisian Spring." This dramatic-comic sitiuation may have some truth in the cumulative embalming of the famous masterpieces of Classical Music's past. Just as the Beethoven piece begins with merely the upbeat, the music turns into Liszt's La Campanella: the commonality between the two works is the stepwise motion and tension between the E/D# of the Beethoven vs. E/D of the Liszt. The leaps in the right hand are like an octave displacement of the half step. A similar, low level transformation would be the expectation of the "A" in Beethoven for which is substituted the big
flourish on low "A" in the Grieg opening.
As the piece proceeds, the borrowed materials are combined and developed in ways removed from their stylistic implications, a technique I have used in many two-piano works, like CPE, which is made from fragments of C.P.E. Bach's Wurtemburg Sonatas. What emerges in both cases is a new developmental path that reinvigorates the old material while retaining the referential
element. Another example would be the introduction of the Brahms fragment as an outgrowth of the consequent phrase of Für Elise which exposes C major and begins the downward sequence and the return of the opening material.
I would make a distinction between this process and that employed in my En Chapeau for violin and piano, which comically pieces together famous sections of the music of Claude Debussy. In that piece all of the music is by Debussy, while in the case of Furball Elise the latter sections of the piece really leave the realm of quotation. Although the presence of the famous quotes
produces a comic effect, the developmental framework of the piece must be taken seriously by the performer, who is "in costume," a concert pianist playing a concert pianist. For me this kind of humor comes out of the comic routines of Charlie Chaplin in the introduction of illogical
elements in commonplace scenes. For example, in The Circus, when Charlie decides to be the
tightrope walker, we accept the presence of the monkeys who plague him on the tightrope,
something that would never occur even though monkeys are associated with circuses. Some of the other comic bits involving animals work in the same way. The familiar becomes intensely
unfamiliar in its unique comic application. In the same scene, Chaplin eschews the tramp outfit for formal attire, thus creating the formal distance of the stage performer, like the pianist in my piece, an affirmation of the musical performer as actor. The miracle of Chaplin's comic device is in the total integration for an uproarious comic unity. It is hoped that in Furball Elise a little of this refinement has rubbed off on me.
P. R. Spring, 2005