Describing my “Dissipating Variations” for Solo Violin (1998-2004)
DISSIPATING VARIATIONS is inspired by both the great Chaconne in D minor from Partita No. 2 and the Goldberg Variations for Piano, two of J.S. Bach’s most revered works. As has been much-talked about, these works are epic in their marriage of strict, lengthy form with deep and varied pathos.
As one who is not generally prone to “follow the masters” down well-trodden paths to which few mortals are allowed to aspire, I would explain my interest this way: part of the intellectual muscle of the Bach masterworks is in their logic and their rounded nature, the way of traditional variation form. They travel incredibly great distances and return home. I had the strange inspiration to travel a long distance, with no backward-glances and no returning home. Exploration is a favorite theme in my music, and particularly in my few works for solo instrument, as it is in this world where I feel most vulnerable – indeed, the idea of a solo performer on stage for a long composition is the very image of musical vulnerability to me. In Dissipating Variations I imagine the solo performer literally fading away, as an Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s victim might, as a sun sets, or as water will eventually evaporate. I pictured the performer at the end of the composition literally seeming to forget what they were playing and, having forgotten, seemingly beginning a new piece. I hope the effect might be that the work could simply go on forever, but not here, not with this performer and not with this composer. The music disappears to some other dimension to be taken up elsewhere
Dissipating Variations begins, like the Goldberg, with a 32-bar theme in 3/4 time, in G major. The first few variations follow a traditional trajectory, perhaps calling upon the violin pyrotechnics of the Chaconne. Compositionally I use the technique of developing of variation, where, as a variation might be built upon the theme and its passacaglia-like construction, it also introduces some new material which will enter the variation cycle to supersede the original theme.
Though the music moves off into a wilderness, the work adheres to an inner formal balance. Theme, 9 Variations, Intermission, 9 more Variations. The first half leads us to believe we are listening to a composer heavily under the influence of Bach, with marginally original or modern takes on the variation form. In the second half, dementia proper sets in. The Intermission is a flight of fancy I call the “Pierrot Intermission.” In homage to another great master of formal balance, Arnold Schoenberg, I assemble into a collage 21 violin incipits from each movement of his masterwork, Pierrot Lunaire. Perhaps this is a knowing wink to the taste for psychological imbalance that was in the air in 1912 expressionist art, an implication of the new direction where we are headed. An example of a forthcoming oddity is in “Pascalia,” where a single (passacaglia) note is plucked, followed by ever-lengthening grace-note passages: 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, 5-note groups, etc. until the final 32 note grouping, which is itself the 32-bar “ground bass.” (I thought a titular reference to the mathematician would not be out of line here.)
I. Departure XI. Pascalia
II. Halved Invention XII. Twins
III. Barnburner XIII. Hyperspace, or Gandalf’s Fall
IV. Butterfly XIV. Claustrophobia
V. Hobby Horse XV. Sleep
VI. Carousel XVI. Desert
VII. Decimarch XVII. Moons
VIII. Dump Truck XVIII. Gnats
IX. Eel Train XIX. Space
X. Pierrot Intermission
Note to performer: Needless to say, do not repeat the Theme at the end!