Mark Applebaum
Composer / Performer / Educator

Variations on Variations on a Theme by Mozart (2006)

Aphasia score sample

4-channel electronic playback. Commissioned by the Third Practice Festival.

Variations on Variations on a Theme by Mozart was commissioned by the Third Practice Festival for the Everglade Records audio DVD [re]. It is a piece in which new music is bred from an existing muscular intelligence. As the name implies, the piece borrows from Mozart—his variations on the French melody Ah! Vous dirai-je, maman. The new piece is a densely layered barrage of eighteen pianos distributed among four loudspeakers, all playing Mozart’s exact pitches and rhythms. As such, this is genuinely a work by Mozart, one that preserves every level of form, from the global sequence of variations down to the note level. And yet because the eighteen pianos have been painstakingly prepared in ways that radically alter—that vary—the timbre of the instrument (as well as its harmonic spectrum and, at times, the resulting dynamic), the listener often struggles to divine Mozart in the fracas. The new variations, then, are timbral and spectral ones, a Viennese classical world acquiescing to the intrusion of modern bric-a-brac (bolts, wooden dowels, aluminum foil, paperclips, and rubber mutes) that, through transcription of data, spawn a thoroughly new and alien sonic patina. It should be noted that no synthesis or sound processing is involved; Variations is merely a spatialized recording of a purely acoustic, multi-piano piece.

From the performer’s point of view, chief among its attributes is its economy: the hands already know the Mozart source, nothing new in the way of musical technique or repertoire has to be learned. (In my own private creative taxonomy I identify the piece as a musical collision through transcription of the subset collisions through neuromuscular economy.) But the listener, when sporadically aware of the piece’s historic source colliding with the contemporary instrumentation, perceives a genealogic abrasion, a collision embodied in the transformation of history. Variations on Variations on a Theme by Mozart distorts an antique and is ticklish because of anachronism, revisionism, and rehabilitation.

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Variations appears in stereo form on the accompanying CD Sock Monkey.
Its 4-channel version can be heard on the accompanying 5.1 encoded DVD [re].