Roger Bourland: Personae (1981)

April 24, 2007


In 1977 I began thinking about writing a piece that musically captured the personalities of four friends, and was to have been called “Four People.” In 1978 Phoebe Carrai and Ed Barker asked me to write a work for cello and bass in solo tuning (meaning the bass is tuned UP a step so as to give the instrument a more brilliant, soloistic sonority) for them. I immediately envisioned a virtuosic piece and began sketching under the working title of “Duo Concertante” a la Stravinsky and Leon Kirchner. What resulted was an amalgamation of the two ideas, but rather than basing the work on specific people, I strove for capturing elements of universal personality types, or “personae.” As a visual embodiment of the four personae, I chose four paintings by Pollock, Rembrandt, Magritte, and Rothko as an inspirational springboard for sonic impressions.

In the first movement, “The War Goddess,” I focused on the wild, violent, Dionysian side of man. The physical, bellicose, and irrational side of man is musically represented through dissonance, abrupt shifts of register, and dramatic change in timbral color. The second movement, “St Peter in Prison,” deals with the emotional, passionate side of man and is in two parts: the suffering, and then the transcendence of suffering toward cosmic optimism. The third movement, “The Reckless Sleeper” flows back and forth between sonic hallucinations of “wind chimes on Jupiter” and long, sustained dream-like flights, climaxed with a nightmare. The last movement, “Music for Rothko Chapel” reflects a spiritual, mystical persona. The shimmering chords of harmonics, continually varying in volume, manifest a magical spirit.

The piece was first written in 1979 and revised in 1981 for this performance. The performers here are Jules Eskin and Edwin Barker, and the concert is from a BSO Chamber Players in Symphony Hall (Boston).

I was studying with Earl Kim at the time. I know he was not amused that I had a piece performed by this group before he did. I brought the piece into my composition seminar and Earl gave me grief about the ending. It was a soft, ethereal ending rather than a strong, macho, purposeful ending. You WILL notice the piece ends on a perfect 5th, foreshadowing my return to tonality.

PERSONAE (1979; rev.1981) by Roger Bourland

Jackson Pollock: The War Goddess

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn: St Peter in Prison

Rene Magritte: The Reckless Sleeper

Mark Rothko: Music for Rothko Chapel

[Painting: “The Reckless Sleeper” by Rene Magritte]

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