Keys to the Cinema

Charles Szczepanek

Genres: Contemporary & Modern, Classical

Keys to the Cinema
  • Released: November 10, 2017
  • 17 track(s)

An album of virtuosic solo piano arrangements of film favorites by John Williams, James Horner, Alan Silvestri and more! Experience music from the movies played on the piano as never heard before!

Liner Notes from the CD:

Chances are you’ve never watched a movie without music. Despite vibrant visuals, action-packed thrillers, and tear-jerking dramas, none of what we see on the screen would have as great an impact if not for the music supporting it. Try watching a movie with your sound turned off, or even better, play some other background music while you watch a scene. You’ll be amazed at the difference in your emotional connection once the music you hear is modified. How we feel when we leave the movie theater is just as dependent on the film’s score as it is on the story, acting, visuals, and direction.

I developed the concept for this album in late 2013, after hearing John Williams conduct the Phoenix Symphony in a live performance. The evening was magical not only due to his presence, but also because of the enthusiastic reactions of the audience. Each piece was known and loved, featuring simple melodies, complex textures, and lush harmonies.

After letting the concept simmer, I began arranging the music on this disc in early 2016. All of my arrangements were composed completely by ear without studying the written orchestral score. Writing music in this way offered me various avenues to travel as I developed my arrangements. I hope you enjoy listening!

The Raider’s March, from Indiana Jones and the Raider’s of the Lost Ark is my attempt to transform the fullness and varied colors found in the original orchestration into a piece that recreates an orchestral sound on a single instrument. The notes I play are, by and large, exact quotes from the John Williams score, creatively registered for piano and intended to be a no-holds-barred, dramatic interpretation of this masterpiece.

The Theme, from Schindler’s List was my initial arrangement on this album. It maintains the original intention present in the full orchestral piece. My version sticks strictly to the form (AABA), maintaining the emotional peaks throughout. Differences between my arrangement and the original first occur in the second “A” section, as the piano left hand plays line after line of 2-octave arpeggios while the now familiar melody in the right hand is doubled with an octave. The end of that section presents a flurry of notes in the right hand, building in intensity, and continuing into the “B” section. Left and right hand often cross over one another in the “B” section, the melody interwoven in very fast passagework. By nature, the piano is a percussion instrument and therefore lacks the sustained sound you hear in strings, winds, and horns. The objective here is to create a sustained texture of sound supporting the melody, rather than to provide a focal point. The “B” section ends with a dramatic descending chromatic scale as the key changes. We then hear the final statement of the main “A” melody, right hand now playing full chords while left hand arpeggios have been transformed into a quick, multi-chord, ascending pattern that leads us to the high point of the piece. As the climactic chord rings, the main melody returns for one final, introspective statement.

In my opinion, Pure Imagination is one of the most beautiful songs of the 20th century. Written for the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, released in 1971, the piece never gained much public attention until recently. It was recorded by a smattering of artists over the course of some 40 years, but not until the release of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2013 and the passing of Gene Wilder in 2016 did the song garner much attention. Most of the music on this album was originally conceived for orchestra. In the case of this arrangement, I started as a jazz pianist would, writing down the basic chord changes, and composed a totally new arrangement around them. Ironically, throughout this compositional process, I heard the piano act more like a string section; a welcome departure from making a string section sound like a piano, as in the majority of the other pieces here!

The arrangement opens with six of the most important notes of the original melody: the notes on which any singer would have the lyric “pure imagination” as they perform the piece. Through the opening section, these six notes are transformed harmonically and rhythmically, the left hand progressions mimicking the rising and swelling of a string section. The arrangement continues on in three sections, each building in harmonic complexity and fullness of registration. Before the piece gives way to the very familiar Somewhere Over the Rainbow, I created a transitional section in which the right hand takes over the fundamental harmony and the left hand creates both melody and texture. These measures, together with the very opening of the piece, are some of my personal favorites on the album.

As that transition ends, we are led into the seldom performed opening verse of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. The famous main melody is then presented simply at first, a few interesting color chords selected for variety. Toward the end of this first presentation of the melody, listen carefully for a short quote from Pure Imagination, played by the thumb and second finger of the right hand, while the fourth and fifth fingers of the same hand continue to play the melody of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. In dramatic fashion, the piece then transposes up in key and we hear another statement of the main melody, followed by an echo similar to the right-hand-harmony/left-hand-melody that ended Pure Imagination.

The Suite, from Forrest Gump, originally composed by Alan Silvestri, is his own compilation of some of the most important music from Forrest Gump, all featured in one piece. The score heavily features the piano juxtaposed against string orchestra. Because of the original use of piano, the Suite lends itself favorably to solo piano performance. As I did in Schindler’s List, my arrangement focuses on maintaining the original intention of the orchestral score, interspersing piano flourishes to aid in conveying meaning and colors beyond simple harmony and melody. This piece contains track markers for each section so you can jump to any one and listen; however, the Suite is intended to be heard without interruption.

James Horner’s contribution to film music is extensive. The Portrait, written for a specific scene in the beloved blockbuster Titanic, is Horner’s original piano composition. Near the film’s completion, Horner added a new version with lyrics by Will Jennings that became one of Celine Dion’s biggest hits: “My Heart Will Go On.” The Portrait is the only composition on this album that is exactly the composer’s original notes, written for solo piano. Throughout the recording session I resisted the great temptation to add notes and flourishes to the piece. Sing along if you like, or listen and enjoy a glimpse into the mind of one of the most famous American film composers.

In the same vein, this arrangement of Alan Menken’s A Whole New World, from Aladdin was conceived by Kyle Landry, a pianist and YouTube sensation who, at the time of this writing, has over 600,000 subscribers. The Disney film Aladdin, released in 1992, is one of my special childhood memories. Growing up, I recall the movie being played repeatedly, and from my early days as a pianist I wanted to perform this music. Kyle’s arrangement captures the nostalgia of the piece nicely. I’m pleased to share it with you here.

I visited San Diego to see some friends and fellow music collaborators in March of 2017. Walking through Balboa Park on a beautiful, sunny afternoon, I admired the Spanish-influenced architecture and, of course, thought about music. It was on this walk that I decided to arrange another James Horner piece, Diego’s Goodbye, from The Mask of Zorro. Arriving back in Phoenix, I completed the arrangement within days. The original orchestration features Spanish Guitar, Native American Flute, and strings. This piece was also turned into the pop song “I Want to Spend My Lifetime Loving You,” recorded by Marc Anthony and Tina Arena.

Although it may not sound like it upon first listen, this Theme, from Somewhere In Time is quite a departure from all the other music presented here. While every other piece on this album was meticulously thought out, arranged, re-arranged, and notated in sheet music, this arrangement was improvised, live, during the third recording session for this album. I played four full takes of this improvisation, and chose one of those four to feature here.

I have always been a huge fan of Star Trek. From watching Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in the original TV series and first movies, to Patrick Stewart playing Captain Picard in The Next Generation, to enjoying the most recent incarnation of the movies, the music and social commentary of Star Trek has strongly influenced my life. Unlike the Suite, from Forrest Gump, this Suite, from Star Trek is entirely my own creation, and features some of the most well known music from the Star Trek catalog. I used techniques borrowed from the likes of Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninoff to bring these large scale orchestral pieces to the piano. Upon first listening to sections from The Wrath of Khan, a colleague of mine claimed she “thought it was two people sitting at one piano!” Running passagework abounds, and octaves in both hands are used in nearly the entirety of the arrangement. Of particular note, the third section of this Suite, “Enterprising Young Men,” is the only music on this album composed away from the piano. Like the Suite from Forrest Gump, this piece contains track markers so you can skip from section to section if you’d like. However, I arranged it as a complete soundscape, to be enjoyed, when possible, from beginning to end without pause.



Executive Producer | John T. McDonough
Producer | Charles Szczepanek
Recording | Winding Road Studios
Mastering | Nathan James, Vault Mastering
Design, Layout, Typography | Cat Braithwaite
Photos of Charles Szczepanek | Maria Fields & Merima Helic
Recorded | February 28, 2017 - April 28, 2017 - June 26, 2017
Piano Technician | Scott Helms
Piano | Mason & Hamlin BB

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