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Silex Variations
for piano

Cakewalk (scherzando)
Nocturne / Silex Brand
Arabesque (sospeso)
Chorale / Schusterfleck
Mouresca (scherzando)

(played continuously)

[Willie Cole - Man Spirit Mask]

Willie Cole - Man Spirit Mask, 1999, Triptych: photo etching; silkscreen; photo etching with woodcut, 39 1/8 x 79 1/2 in., Courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York

When the New Jersey Arts Collective asked me to write a piano piece inspired by Willie Cole's Man Spirit Mask I approached the commission with a good deal of trepidation. If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, what then is composing about printmaking? But as I got to know Cole's work I became more and more intrigued by his triptych—with its unmistakably Trinitarian "three-in-oneness"—and the musical possibilities it suggested. Ultimately I decided on three short movements, corresponding to the three panels of the triptych, which are played continuously and framed by two dances. An introductory Cakewalk is followed by a Nocturne, in which slow sustained chords that gradually ascend to the piano's highest register are "branded" by loud staccato notes. The wisps of sound in the Arabesque that follows were suggested by the diaphanous swirls emanating from the edges of the iron in the central panel of Man Spirit Mask. "Schusterfleck" is the word Beethoven used to describe Anton Diabelli's waltz, before he made it the subject of his Diabelli Variations, op. 120. (The word means "cobbler's patch.") Willie Cole's appropriation of shoes and irons suggested my appropriation of a fragment of Beethoven's Diabelli variation no. 20 as an "anxious object" on which I have constructed a mask in the form of an irregular Chorale. The Chorale is interrupted just before the cadence by the scherzando music of the Cakewalk, now reinterpreted as a Mouresca (a 15th-century English dance said to have been of Moorish origin), with repeated notes and a rollicking coda to evoke the bells worn by the dancers.

date: 2006
duration: 7:00
premiere: April 29, 2006, Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJ; Anthony de Mare.