Creative Works

Transmutational Etudes

For solo piano, nine movements (1980) 21:45
Donald Bohlen, piano

Transmutation as a variation principle, borrowing from both plastic and literary arts, generates the fundamental structures of these nine compositional studies or etudes for solo piano.  Moving from historically accepted development and transformation, to complete transmutation (conversion or transferal of unlike elements), results in musical analogs for information control principles normally not considered indigenous to music.  Though the etudes are structured to be heard as a complete entity, with unifying references that are usual in music, the odd numbered studies are based on devices associated with painting and the even numbered compositions are related to structures within poetry and prose.  The texts were written by Robert Jones, a poet-librettist, with whom the composer has frequently collaborated.  The variety of pianistic textures within these nine etudes reflects an embrace of the legacy of nineteenth century piano repertoire as well as more recent experimental uses of the instrument.

The first etude, Adjacent and the last etude, Dispersed, are derived from the same drafting principles within the painting art.  The first composition juxtaposes two sharply contrasting, seemingly unrelated designs within the same time-space.  The concluding etude quotes the same primary designs, but in this exposition they are separated by a third body of interrupting (dispersing) material.  Miniature, the seventh etude, is a brief, encapsulated recapitulation of structural elements from the opening etude.

The two compositions entitled Image are based on haiku poems.  The first poem celebrates morning (birth) and the second haiku concerns evening (with intimations of death), thus helping to bring the entire set of etudes to closure.  A brief quote from Kinderscenen of Robert Schumann (in the first Image) is intended as an acknowledgement of the tenuousness of life at the moment of birth.  The music begins with an outline of the rhythmic shape of the Schumann composition, gradually encompasses triadic harmonic elements, briefly quotes the Kinderscenen material, and then moves quickly and briefly to the language with which the etude began.

In Superimposed (etude no.3) the basic structures of the opening etude are once again in evidence.  Overlaid on the keyboard materials is a second body of musical gestures written entirely for extended techniques inside the instrument.

Soliloquy, in poetic form, is one of two longer etudes (paired with Christopher Alone, etude no.4, in prose form) expressing similar sentiments.  Though transmutation of semantic arts information supply is the primary concern, there is reference both musically and textually to an event within the composer’s personal experience.  Occasional occurrences of an isorhythmic figure lend cohesion within etude no.4 and become a significant aspect of the final moments in Christopher Alone.  

Though there is a brief pause between each of the Transmutational Etudes, Prolation (etude number 5) is structurally a very brief extension of the concluding sounds of the preceding etude and an anticipation of the primary pitches of Soliloquy (etude no. 6).

I Adjacent

II Image

Suddenly, the night
spills light, gold sun spun sky blue
from fresh scented fields.

III Superimposed

IV Christopher Alone

V Prolation

VI Soliloquy

This fragile leaf I crush
against my fingers
dies,
was dead the moment
I thrust it
unheeding from the branch
was dying from the moment
it was life.
Mortality stains itself
green,
lifts sharp scented
across the smell of air.
Waits.

VII Miniature

VIII Image

Now the sunlight sings
evening – green leaves whispering
turn, burn soft silver.

IX Dispersed

Copyright © 2008 Donald Bohlen.

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