Sound Stories, Riddles, Puzzles and Plays

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

The brilliantly inventive music of Bulgarian pianist and composer Borislava Taneva has steadily become one of the jewels of the Editions Musica Ferrum catalogue.

Taneva’s music appears in all three Mosaic books (which I have featured here and will revisit as the series continues to grow), and she has three titles of her own: Sound Stories (2016), and two volumes entitled Riddles, Puzzles and Plays.

Taneva’s music is strikingly creative, and the seam of pedagogy running though it is not simply good: it’s truly inspiring. So read on for a full review and overview…

Sound Stories for Solo Piano

Before digging into Taneva’s latest publications, let’s revisit her 2016 collection of Sound Stories.

Bonislava Taneva Sound Stories review

This was one of the first collections I discovered from Musica Ferrum, and it remains a favourite. Taneva’s music speaks with a direct, folk-inspired musical language that is brimming with character, perhaps a contemporary counterpart and response to the children’s pieces of Béla Bartók.

The 24 pieces that make up Sound Stories reveal her to also be a composer of immense wit and intelligence, and it has been good to see her music introduced to a wider audience with one of the pieces from the collection, Balloons in the air, becoming an easy choice within the current Trinity College Grade 4 syllabus.

According to the publisher:

“Each work serves a specific purpose in the educational process of the student, while the music itself bursts with romantism, creativity, fun, and easy to grasp a little more advanced concepts (irregular time signatures, silently depressed notes, etc).”

The pieces are as technically adventurous as they are musically engaging, with overlapping hand formations, legato chord changes, finger-substitutions, and plenty of other challenges.

At the same time the imagery invoked is well suited to younger players. and will particularly appeal to pre-teens who are progressing between UK Grades 2-5 level. Here’s the full list of piece titles:

  1. March
  2. A rising melody
  3. Blind Man’s Bluff
  4. Tin Soldiers
  5. A singing river
  6. Balloons in the air
  7. A riddle
  8. Slow Waltz
  9. An Indian Game
  10. The leapfrog
  11. The Broken Telephone
  12. Fast and loose
  13. A game on 5/8
  14. A game of staccato
  15. The game is over
  16. Slow menuet
  17. The clowns
  18. The acrobats
  19. Just a tongue-twister
  20. Nocturne
  21. A fairytale
  22. Etude
  23. The old clock
  24. In Bulgarian rhythms

Again, this list gives a good indication of the range of moods here, all conveyed in an easy (but traditionally rooted) musical language that is memorable and will quickly appeal. You can listen to a short preview here, which includes four of the works in the collection:

Riddles, Puzzles and Plays

Taneva’s creative zest and pedagogic imagination are given scope to become the main attraction in her new series of two books, Riddles, Puzzles and Plays.

When Sound Stories appeared, it had one of the most eye-catching covers so far in the young publisher’s catalogue. More recently, Musica Ferrum publications have become ever more gorgeous, so it’s a disappointment that these two are given a plain buff treatment, with no illustrations within, and sporting covers which seem to me rather homespun:

In any case, hopefully any who find the presentation uninviting will not be put off, because when it comes to the music and pedagogy within, these books are an absolute blast.

The first book contains 25 pieces (or should that be riddles, puzzles and plays?) for the elementary student, while the second delivers a further 25 for the intermediate player.

If the music of Sound Stories barely concealed its pedagogic intent, the learning goals of these pieces are still more explicit, each piece followed by a list of questions aimed at the player, as well as a stated educational goal to support their teacher.

And this is bold pedagogy, the student invited to fill in gaps in a canon, explore the geography of the piano, improvise, compose and engage their musical imagination, research composers and genres on YouTube, explore irregular time signatures, new keys, and develop healthy playing technique. In the first volume there’s even a set of nine pieces given over to teaching the different intervals.

In short, the books depend on and build upon the player’s curiosity in the most playful and deeply educative way.

With so much deliberately didactic content, the pieces here perhaps exist more for the creative learning opportunities they present than necessarily to be performed. It is therefore to Taneva’s particular credit that many also make wonderfully enjoyable and memorable pieces in any case!

Given these books’ radically explorative agenda, it remains to be seen just how many teachers are ready to take an invigorating plunge into their waters, or indeed how many parents are willing for their children to be diverted from the over-worn path that leads straight from one exam to the next so as to “smell the roses” and enjoy the creative freedom available here, benefitting from this artistically elevating material.

Nevertheless, I urge all teachers to investigate these publications as a matter of urgency. Those who are willing to bend their teaching agenda under Taneva’s superb guidance may well find it permanently changed and irrevocably improved.

Gently, but persuasively, Taneva shows us a better way.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.