Though in no way a prodigy, Franco Donatoni doggedly pursued a musical career through uninspiring violin lessons and even more desultory formal schooling, interrupted by the hazards of Nazi-occupied Verona during the final years of World War II. After the war, he eventually made his way to the Bologna Conservatory, where he completed a composition degree in 1951. Then he was able to work with Goffredo Petrassi and Bruno Maderna, and he attended the highly influential summer sessions at Darmstadt three times during the 1950s.
As Donatoni found his own voice, he developed an aesthetic and methodology of transformation. Through this creative process, he would often begin a new work with a fragment from an earlier piece and manipulate it through a sort of musical replacement code. In the early 1970s Donatoni fell into a personal and professional crisis and in 1975 vowed to quit composing. He regained his desire to compose fairly quickly, however, and extended his transformation process into the possibility of mapping entire pieces onto each other to create new works.
Thus the song …ed insieme bussarono (for soprano and piano, 1978) led to Rima (piano, 1982). Elements of Rima then were combined with Lame (cello, 1982) and Lem (bass, 1982), for the substance of Alamari (cello, bass, and piano, 1983), which in turn became the basis of Hot (solo saxophone [sopranino and tenor] with clarinet, trumpet, trombone, percussion, bass, and piano). Hot was commissioned by the Association des Saxophonistes de France and dedicated to saxophonist Daniel Kientzy, who was the soloist for the premiere performance, at the Metz Festival in November 1989.
Hot itself evolves through repetition and transmutation. The composer described the piece as a sort of "imaginary jazz," and he begins with his rhythm section - piano, bass, and percussion - laying down a sort of oddly constricted, composite walking bass line, very soft but goosed with carefully placed accents. Then he brings in the brass (muted trumpet and trombone) playing a background phrase mostly in seconds, the ultimate close harmony - a smudged unison, really. When the solo sax enters, it too has a shadow, the clarinet acting as both echo and goad. Donatoni gradually raises the dynamic and complexity levels, moving the lead lines around like the trade-off in a jazz group. The piece grows through organic variation, but Donatoni also suggests - or lampoons expectations - of more conventional shapes with percussion markers. With the shift from marimbas to bongos he begins a fading transition that leads to a recapitulation of the whole process, and roto-toms drive a coda that ends with a mini-cadenza.
Donatoni was also a renowned teacher, and in this context it is worth noting that Esa-Pekka Salonen was one of his students. Donatoni's last completed work was ESA (In Cauda V), a Los Angeles Philharmonic commission dedicated to Salonen and premiered by him and the orchestra in February 2001. (Also, the Philharmonic's New Music Group co-commissioned Donatoni's Holly and gave the West Coast premiere in April 1991.)
"Donatoni saw himself as a craftsman, an artisan, i.e. a manufacturer of music, not the lonely romantic genius who wanders in forests and feels Weltschmerz," Salonen wrote before the premiere of ESA (In Cauda V). "His point of view is typically Italian: clear, practical, light (as opposed to heavy), unsentimental. The key to composing is to work, meticulously and precisely: 'lavorare e lavorare, sempre lavorare' he used to say.
"I find all this very healthy. When I was young I wanted to become an elegant intellectual acrobat like Donatoni and Berio. Only much later I realized that people of the North can never be like the people of the South. We need both poles. I love the kaleidoscopic world of Donatoni's, the sudden twists and turns and the sheer beauty of the surface of the music. Not only did he manage to develop his very own language: he also learned to speak it."