"The attraction of the virtuoso for the public is very like that of the circus for the crowd. There is always the hope that something dangerous will happen." - Claude Debussy
Virtuosity - raw talent honed to a wicked technical edge by years of assiduous training - has long fascinated composers. Composers sometimes talk about exploring the potential of the instrument in a solo work, but they are also probing the limits of human dexterity and sympathetic imagination. There is a virtuosity of "sensibility and intelligence," as Luciano Berio described it, a spiritual as well as a mechanical virtuosity. So in a sense, these solos are all duets, parallel revelations of the artist and the instrument.
Or, in the case of Michel van der Aa's Oog (Eye, 1995), a trio. The Dutch composer (b. 1970) adds an electronic partner to the mix, exploring the technological and artistic relationship between the structure and strictures of prerecorded and computer-generated elements and the unpredictability of human expression. In this rather regimented conversation, the cellist is instructed to use a stopwatch to obtain tight synchronization with the electronic elements. "Musicians must be on the edge of their seats in order to be in time," the composer says. "The energy, which comes from this, is what I find interesting. I like the idea of a struggle to the finish very much indeed, of an almost masochistic fight with the tape, as in Oog."
This struggle is played out over a ten-minute course in which first the cello seems to be providing material for a hovering electronic succubus, which then overwhelms the instrument. At the end, however, the cello frees itself from electronic domination. Oog had its premiere in 1996; it was also used as the basis for a solo dance piece by choreographer Thom Stuart in 1998.
Inevitably, these pieces also reveal as much about their composers as they about of the instruments involved. Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958), the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Music Director, has said that his dark chaconne for solo violin, Laughing Unlearnt, reflects his own uneasiness in the post-9/11 world. Written for Cho-Liang Lin and premiered by him at La Jolla's SummerFest last year, Laughing Unlearnt takes its name from a line in Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. In "Gebet an Pierrot" (Prayer to Pierrot) in Part II of the cycle, the narrator begs Pierrot to teach her to laugh again - a prayer many could make in the current climate of heightened tensions. The ten-minute work is a series of variations over an implied chord pattern, a post-modern version of an old Baroque idea.
"The beginning is sparse, tense, dramatic - long notes sharply cut off with brusque curlicues. What follows is both furious and strangely gorgeous, impressive virtuoso flourishes on open strings, fancy scale work, and passages thick with chords. The final, flutey bars are but the hint of laughter regained, just sweet enough to leave a comforting afterglow," Mark Swed wrote in his Los Angeles Times review of the premiere.
British composer Colin Matthews (b. 1946) is best known as an orchestral composer - and for his work with Deryck Cooke on the most frequently used performing edition of Mahler's Tenth Symphony - but he has also written a number of works for solo instruments: violin, cello, piano, and harpsichord. Bassoonova was written at the request of Steven Stucky for David Breidenthal, and commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group.
"Bassoonova is probably not to be danced to, indeed has not a great deal of the bossa nova about it," Matthews writes. "But the title, suggested to me flippantly by the filmmaker Barrie Gavin, became irresistible. It has five movements, which are played with as little break between them as possible. They are: Allegro - Molto Vivo - Recitativo - Ostinato - Allegretto, and the work lasts just under 9 minutes."
Matthews has arranged the music of Elizabethan lutenist John Dowland several times, an interest he may have acquired during his work with Benjamin Britten. Thomas Adès (b. 1971) also turned to Dowland for Darknesse Visible, a solo piano piece composed in 1992 and recorded on his EMI debut album.
"This piece is an explosion of John Dowland's lute song 'In Darknesse Let Mee Dwell' (1610). No notes have been added; indeed, some have been removed," Adès writes. "Patterns latent in the original have been isolated and regrouped, with the aim of illuminating the song from within, as if during the course of a performance.
In darknesse let mee dwell,
the ground shall sorrow be,
The roofe Dispaire to barre
all cheerful light from mee,
The wals of marble blacke
that moistned still shall weepe,
My musicke hellish jarring sounds
to banish friendly sleepe.
Thus wedded to my woes,
and bedded to my Tombe,
O let me living die till death doe come.
Dowland ends the song with a restatement of the opening line."
American composer Lee Hyla (b. 1952) has created an important body of chamber music that exemplifies his complex yet direct forms and multi-referential modes of expression, including solo works for cello, bass clarinet, and alto saxophone. Detour Ahead was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, and the composer provided the following note.
"Detour Ahead was written during the summer of 2003 and completed on September 2nd. Much of Detour Ahead's thematic material is derived from the natural harmonics of the contrabass itself. The piece attempts to deal with this somewhat restricted material in a variety of contexts. Music that is first heard as essentially lyric evolves over time to reappear as a riff. At other times there is no evolution, only hard, contrasting juxtaposition. These conflicts increase in frequency over the course of the piece, culminating in a quotation from the Art Ensemble of Chicago's version of "Old Time Religion" arriving approximately three-quarters of the way into the piece. This is followed by a brief chorale passage of open strings and harmonic double stops with music derived from Detour's opening, where it was initially heard as tremolo pizzicato. The piece concludes with a coda which brings back another primary melodic idea and places it in the context of an ambling riff."
The program ends as it began, with a live performer interacting with an electronic partner. New York Counterpoint (1985) is the second in the "counterpoint" series by American minimalist master Steve Reich (b. 1936). The pieces of this series - Vermont Counterpoint (for flutes, 1982), Electric Counterpoint (for guitars, 1987), and the new Cello Counterpoint, premiered last month by Maya Beiser - mesh a live performer with pre-recorded parts. New York Counterpoint was composed for clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and premiered in January 1986. The composer wrote the following program note.
"The piece is a continuation of the ideas found in Vermont Counterpoint, where a soloist plays against a pre-recorded tape of him- or herself. In New York Counterpoint the soloist pre-records ten clarinet and bass clarinet parts and then plays a final 11th part live against the tape. The compositional procedures include several that occur in my earlier music. The opening pulses ultimately come from the opening of Music for 18 Musicians (1976). The use of interlocking repeated melodic patterns played by multiples of the same instrument can be found in my earliest works, Piano Phase (for 2 pianos or 2 marimbas) and Violin Phase (for 4 violins), both from 1967. In the nature of the patterns, their combination harmonically, and in the faster rate of change, the piece reflects my recent works, particularly Sextet (1985).
"New York Counterpoint is in three movements: fast, slow, fast, played one after the other without pause. The change of tempo is abrupt and in the simple relation of 1:2. The piece is in the meter 3/2 = 6/4 (=12/8). As is often the case when I write in this meter, there is an ambiguity between whether one hears measures of 3 groups of 4 eighth notes, or 4 groups of 3 eighth notes. In the last movement of New York Counterpoint the bass clarinets function to accent first one and then the other of these possibilities while the upper clarinets essentially do not change. The effect, by change of accent, is to vary the perception of that which in fact is not changing."
-- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.