Variations on a Theme of Cole Porter

I hate parading my serenading

As I’ll probably miss a bar,

But if this ditty is not so pretty

At least it’ll tell you how great you are… You’re the Top!

Commissioned as a 40th wedding anniversary present, this piece is one of celebration, freedom, life, colour and contrast – but at the same time is not relentlessly cheerful (any more than a 40 year marriage will have been!) The Cole Porter song was one of the couple’s favourites.

I decided rather than recognisable alter the melody, as in traditional, Classical variations, I would deconstruct the theme as an abstract object and ask ‘questions’ of it – you’ve done this once, but if you did it again where might you end up…?; if you hadn’t done this, would you have done this…?; did you try this instead…?

I also take patterns of notes in the music and treat them out of the composer’s context – for example using intervals literally rather than in a tonal framework. These are the sorts of things all composers do in some way or other – although my music is naturally very different from Porter’s I think some of these playful spin-offs would have appealed to him (at least in principle, if not necessarily in terms of all the resulting sounds…)

The work is free, rhapsodic, rather like a written down improvisation, to be performed with vivacity and an energetic ‘sweep’. The rhythmic language, in particular, unless specifically indicated otherwise, tends towards spontaneity rather than exactness. The sometimes complex or polyrhythmic language seeks a freer mode of expression, rather than one overtly precise and detailed – the performer should think in bigger shapes and sweeps of sound.

The piece falls into three main sections. Firstly, a presentation of the theme, which comes into focus like a long-distant memory, gradually growing more confident. The second section is the central body of the work and itself comprises four variations – some rather hefty, dark music; a more lyrical and romantic passage, statements of the famous syncopated ‘riff’ from Porter’s theme over a ground bass, and then a recap of the first variation. The final section is a sort of finale-coda, a manic improvisation of abstract gestures becoming increasingly virtuosic and intense, before moving off into the distance. The closing pages witness repeated fragments of the theme gradually dying away, interspersed with random themes from earlier in the piece. In a mirror image of the opening, the music breaks down and the theme is left as a hazy memory.

NW – September 2014

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