Margo Guryan

The Chopsticks Variations

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It seems hard to believe, but here's a set of variations on Chopsticks, blurbed by none other than Gunther Schuller. "A charming set of variations on the famous tune: clever witty, at times tender and elegant, at other times punning and ribald," he writes. "Every variation has some delightfully surprising touch." It's true. California-based composer and pianist Margo Guryan offers a set of variations on the well-known children's ditty, and they're more than distinctive enough to hold the listener's interest. The included summary of the tune's history may be worth the purchase price in itself: it has nothing to do with Asian chopsticks, but was published in London in 1877 under the title The Chop Waltz, and the characteristic percussive way of playing the notes was part of the original instructions. Similar tunes appeared at the same time in several other cities, suggesting a common ancestor in unwritten tradition. Eleven of Guryan's 14 variations are in ABA form, with different deployments of the theme in most of those; the charm of the work lies largely in the subtlety with which these are all knitted together as the theme moves from hand to hand and spreads out to intermittent notes in the music. The work is both stylistically and tonally diverse, with ragtime and boogie woogie variations; Schuller calls it "a little American Mikrokosmos -- and much more fun!" Indeed Guryan's piece has some of the same way of deriving surprises from very simple material that is found in the early volumes of that famous Hungarian set for children. The Chopsticks Variations are not specifically for kids, however; an advanced student could certainly play them, but they're not for beginners.

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