Music Box Variations

Music Box Variations is a composition created for Untether 3, Craig Harris’ third solo keyboard concerts presented at Homewood Studios in Minneapolis, MN on September 10, 2019. In this series Craig revisits music created for dance and theater shows throughout his career – revitalizing it, creating new work based on raw materials from these shows, and presenting new compositions currently in development.

Craig’s multimedia stage work, interactive sculptures and creative story spaces have been experienced by Twin Cities audiences on stages for dance and theater for many years. This series has been a rare opportunity to experience his music in concert form. The series theme, Untether, represents both the artist and audience being “released from tether” to explore musical and emotional terrain together in non-traditional and unexpected ways.

This performance of Music Box Variations is part of a larger scale work currently in development entitled “Collections,” which explores our inclination to collect objects, people, values and stories.

Music Box Variations

from Collections

Collections were popular in my family in the 1960’s for some reason.

  • My Aunt Eileen collected tiny mirrors and decorated her living room wall with them.
  • My Uncle Joe went around to garage sales and collected old violins – nothing valuable, and he didn’t play. But he liked having them and tinkering with them.
  • My parents collected old Chinese snuff bottles, of all things. Oriental was “in” then.
  • Aunt Sophie became an antique dealer – collecting all kinds of things and selling them here and there… keeping what she liked. She became the dealer feeding everybody’s addiction.

My family decided in 1965 that I should have a collection. My mother decided. And since they couldn’t seem to peel me away from my keyboards, it was determined that I should have a collection of miniature pianos…:

  • Little carved wood pianos;
  • glass pianos;
  • porcelain pianos,
  • little modern piano sculptures;
  • funny little toy pianos with tiny benches, and sometimes tiny lids that went up and down;
  • some had important purposes (coaster holder); and
  • naturally little piano music boxes.

I would receive new miniature pianos for every birthday, holiday and sometimes just because a family member saw it somewhere and thought I should have it because it was fun, or funny, and… because I had a miniature piano collection.

I could see the glee in their faces when they would present them to me, and I would of course swoon and be appreciative on the outside, while on the inside I was wondering – “why is everybody giving me tiny pianos?” I mean, I never asked for a miniature piano collection. Nobody ever asked me if I wanted a miniature piano collection. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I really didn’t want a miniature piano collection. So there I was – collecting miniature pianos. At its peak there were over 40 pieces. I still have most of them.

When I moved out of the house I had to take them all with me. That was complicated. Many of them were extremely fragile, so they had to be packed and moved very carefully – every time I moved. Seven places in Canada; four places in Rochester, NY, a house in Ann Arbor, MI; three places in San Francisco; and now in Minneapolis. And I couldn’t just leave them in the boxes. What would happen when they came to visit? “Nice place! Where is the piano collection?” 16 moves over 23 years – packing, unpacking and repacking – moving carefully.

I admit – some of them were pretty – some were fun – but I definitely did not need or want a miniature piano collection.

The Music Boxes

I think I might have enjoyed receiving antique carved wood music boxes, with pretty folk tunes. That’s not what I received. Mostly my music boxes were mass produced metal pianos, mostly the same design… and with popular music tunes – like “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head.”

I was performing rock music and classical standards of my parents’ era in clubs and at dances as a young teen. By the time I was 15 years old I was already avidly playing jazz – bebop, and I was deeply into abstract jazz by the time I was 17.

By the time I entered the Conservatory in Toronto as an undergraduate composer I was immersed in abstract contemporary classical music, a distance far from the popular music world. When I got deeply into computer music an entirely new world of sound and musical process opened up for me.

“Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head” was definitely not in alignment with my musical perspective, but I guess nobody was creating music boxes playing Charlie Parker’s “Constellation”, or John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme”, or Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima”.

I wasn’t just curious about transforming the sounds in these music boxes. It was compulsory – it became a mission. I adjusted the placement of the little metal pins that make the sound to change the tune… I switched the music plates and player drums between the music boxes so the rhythm of one song would play the notes of another. Once I created an installation where I wound several of them up at the same time, placed them around a big space, and then let them play and run out slowly and stop. Anything to disrupt the original tune… to make a statement.

It was ok if there was a hint of the rhythm, but the melody was transformed; or a hint of the melody, but with a disfigured rhythm. This approach stayed with me, and in many ways is part of my musical voice. I like creating anchors in the familiar, and venturing into new territory, at times quite removed from the original material, creating musical narratives and soundscapes that take people on a journey into the unknown.

Over the years I used these music boxes in different ways in different compositions and dance-theater works. In the past I always did that in recordings, but for tonight I have mapped parts of the music box onto my sampling keyboard so I can explore this material in live performance – a sometimes individual tones and short melodic fragments; sometimes longer phrases. I mapped it in a way that I could integrate the music box sounds with an electronic piano sound and some sampled piano resonance.

I’m going to play an improvisational theme and variations to explore aspects of this material. The piece begins with the entire theme, then fragments in sequence, and then ventures on a sonic journey.

This video clip provides some excerpts from the full performance:

This is a video of the entire Music Box Variations performance:

This is a link to the audio only version of the Music Box Variations performance: