This is one of my most aberrant and belligerent children. If you’re looking for that Jett Hitt Yellowstone sound, this ain’t it. This is not typical of my music. It is the only piece that I managed to salvage from my days under the tutelage (thumb) of avant-garde composition professors.
This is a MIDI mockup using Cinematic Studio Solo Strings, one of the better VST solo string libraries. It is far from perfect, however. Solo strings are very complex and notoriously difficult to credibly sample, and my mock up skills are sorely lacking. Despite this, it is a fair enough representation of the work. This work is a quasi programmatic piece that follows the traditional sonata form with a mirror recapitulation. The work is dedicated to my long time friend, the German author Hans Christoph Buch.
Full Scores – $30.00
Parts – $30.00
Both – $50.00
If this score seems pricey, it is because it has so many notes and, thus, pages. The score is 24 pages long, and the parts are 5 to 6 pages on legal sized paper. For performance, I recommend mounting multiple pages on a sheet of cardboard that can be flipped halfway through the performance.
Gustav Klimt's Danae (1907)
Anyone who knows me knows that I am rather smitten by the works of Gustav Klimt, and Danae is my favorite of his paintings. Danae was the only child of the King of Argos. When an oracle told the king that he would be slain by his grandson, he locked Danae into a guarded tower so that no man might know her. His plan was foiled, however, by the ever-so licentious Zeus, who stole into the tower and impregnated her in the guise of a golden shower. Thus came forth the demigod Perseus, slayer of Medusa—and his grandfather.
A History of the Piece
It was the fall semester of 1993, and I was in graduate school at LSU in Baton Rouge. To my dismay, I had been lured to LSU with air castle promises of writing my own music. Instead, I found myself required to write one mundane atonal pastiche after another, and I was growing increasingly bitter and vocal about it. To assuage my objections, I was saddled with the task of writing an octatonic string quartet, a favorite tonal construct of Stravinsky. The octatonic scale is comprised of alternating half and whole steps so that the composer is denied a dominant chord. I suddenly wished that I had kept my mouth shut. Had the assignment had been twelve-tone or some other unintelligible, nonmusical gobbledegook, it would have been quickly and easily achieved. The octatonic scale was not part of my musical palette, but it would demand musicality. I couldn’t fake this as I had so many other nonsensical 20th-century styles. This would require real effort.
Back home, I sat at my desk, gobsmacked by the sheer silliness of my predicament. I was paying hard-earned money to learn how to write music that no one wanted to hear–music that I sure as hell didn’t want to write. As I sat there seething, Henry Mancini’s theme to the Pink Panther came wafting faintly through my window from somewhere in the distance. It made me smile, and its seductive rhythm took the edge off of my anger. My gaze shifted to the print of Klimt’s Danae, which hung over my desk. Slowly, ever so slowly, an idea began to emerge in my mind. The jocular swagger of Mancini’s timeless theme began to fuse with visions of silly, lascivious Greek gods copulating with unsuspecting mortal maidens. My anger began to elide with mockery, and snippets of the taunting children’s song of Nana Nana Na Na (sol sol mi la sol mi) began to slither into the texture. I knew that the octatonic mandate would handicap my melodic gift, so I shifted my focus to rhythm and virtuosity to generate appeal. It took a few days for the ideas to gestate, but I had the sound.
Over the next couple of months, I hammered out the piece. It was a Sisyphean task because the octatonic scale wasn’t a natural part of my vocabulary. In the exposition, there are three themes, one for each of the characters represented in Klimt’s painting. Zeus’s theme opens the work with its goofy, bastardized Mancini overtones. Perseus, who is represented in the painting by Danae in the fetal position, gets the hero motive. It is fashioned out of the aforementioned taunting children’s song, and it is the ostinato-like glue that binds the work together. Finally, Danae is portrayed by the gentle, lyrical theme–well, it’s as gentle and lyrical as octatonic can be.
Over the centuries, artists have been drawn to Zeus’s fatuous passion for mortal females. The most popular of these myths was Leda and the Swan, no doubt owing to the phallic nature of the swan’s neck. These artist depictions are almost always rendered as consensual acts of passion and seldom as violent acts of rape. Klimt was no different. His Danae is serene and beautiful, and her writhing hand suggests that she is in ecstasy. The golden shower has rounded edges, implying tender, soothing motion. At the end of the shower is a phallic rectangle, and scattered throughout the chiffon raiment are egg cells. Combined with the fetal position, these symbols intimate that this is about conception. It is about a miracle. It is about the creation of the heroic demigod Perseus.
I loved this painting from the first moment that I saw it. Not a day passes that I don’t look at it. It hangs as the centerpiece in my studio. Its passion, beauty, color, and elegance speak to me as few visual artworks ever have. I did my best to capture its magic in sound, but because of my octatonic shackles, I needed something to stimulate my imagination. I turned to the myth itself. In the most generous interpretations of the myth, Zeus seduced Danae, became her lover, and gave her the gift of Perseus to smite her enemies. Seldom ever does Zeus’s violent history as a rapist taint this particular myth, but it was always in the back of my mind. After all, how does a mere mortal maiden resist the advances of a god? Would it even be possible? Given that this is purely a myth, pondering such might seem ridiculous, if not demented. But I needed fodder to feed the development of this sonata. The exposition had simply been mini portraits of the characters in the painting, but now they had to interact.
So in the development, I turned to the adult portion of the piece. The themes are combined, intertwined, and contorted into a type of musical foreplay, a seduction if you will. As was probably inevitable, Zeus eventually emerges as a vibrant golden shower. This moment conspicuously contrasts slurred legato string bowings with the violent spiccatos that have permeated the texture up until now. At last, we arrive at the act itself. Portraying this moment was unavoidable, and the music had to suggest that this union might not be wholly consensual. Zeus’s theme is transformed into a lasciviously violent and mocking descant, underpinned by conjugal rhythms. Despite its violence, however, it somehow can’t escape the silliness of gods copulating with mortals and, most importantly, the heroic undertones of the miracle that is taking place. This is the creation of Perseus.
At this point, the piece departs its programmatic elements and returns to the confines of sonata form. Danae’s theme returns in a mirror recapitulation of the exposition. The section is truncated, and Perseus’ theme is omitted entirely. The recapitulation is then completed by the return of Zeus’s theme.
Perseus’ theme returns in the coda, mixing with elements of the music of seduction and the conjugal rhythms from the development. The tenor of the material is given a slightly heroic sheen in celebration of our new hero, and just as the music comes to an end, Zeus has the last laugh with the final two notes.
After I finished the work, I was blindsided one day when my professor requested a MIDI mockup of the piece. Mockups were so crude in those days, cheesy synthesizer sounds recorded onto cassette tape. He had never requested this before, and his request was rather problematic. I had two versions of the piece: One contained all of his suggested edits, which were horrifically unpalatable, and the other was my version of the work. When mocking them up, his version sounded so uncouth that, in the end, I just took my version to him instead. He didn’t even notice, and he loved the work. He announced that it was to be read publicly by LSU’s New Music Ensemble. In other words, he announced a clusterfuck. The sound of four string players at a mediocre university sight-reading this piece was the musical equivalent of stuffing nine cats and a pit bull into a gunny sack. It was humiliating. For all anyone knew, this was what it was supposed to sound like.
The following year, I transferred to another university. I discarded every work I had written at LSU except for Danae (and some private music). I probably would have thrown it away, too, except I feared that I would need it for applications to doctoral programs, and indeed, that was the case. The next spring, I engaged a graduate quartet at SMU in Dallas to record the work. Predictably, the recording was a trainwreck because, as per usual, everyone was unprepared. Such is the plight of the modern composer. All was not lost, however. The work generated a great deal of excitement that afternoon as we tried again and again to get an acceptable recording. It was a compelling work, something I hadn’t thought before hearing it live. It was especially exciting to watch it performed. At some point, the SMU chamber music coach entered the hall and began assisting with the recording. The air bristled with excitement, and, in the end, it was decided that the work would be programmed on one of the players’ graduate recitals. I was to get a rehearsed, performance-level recording of the work. Life was good.
About ten days before the recital, I received an email from the player. He had hurt his hand, and the recital had been canceled. He returned home to Germany and never finished his degree. For a couple of years thereafter, I pursued performances of the work, but to no avail. The Niles Quartet at the University of Kentucky was supposed to play it, but the violist reneged. Finally, I threw it in a drawer, where it stayed for more than twenty years until I pulled it out to do the MIDI mockup found on this page.
I am surprised to say that I have a great deal of affinity for this work. Because I was coerced into writing it, my attitude toward it has been quite jaded for many years. I had no intention of making it public when I chose to mock it up. I simply thought that it would be a good vehicle for practicing my mockup skills with a newly acquired VST solo string library. As I put it together, however, the excitement of the day we attempted to record it came flooding back to me. If it ever receives a premiere by a capable quartet, I think the audience will be enthralled. I also think that the members of the quartet will drink to my demise shortly thereafter. It is a wicked-difficult, page-turn nightmare. As loath as I am to say it, I am glad I was forced to write this. It taught me a lot. The more prudish among us will undoubtedly be offended by its program.
Other Klimt Musings
My studio is situated in a provincial area in the Ozark Mountains, and its walls are donned with no less than eight Gustav Klimt prints. There would be more if I had the wall space. Like so many artists, Klimt often favored painting nudes. This creates an environment that has a wonderfully delicious effect on the locals. They avert their gaze from the walls and squirm ever so slightly as the imagery accosts their sensibilities. They never tend to stay very long, which is the desired effect. I think of my Klimt prints as mothballs for locals.