Written for cellist Stephen Balderston, Bowings without Words was completed in 2008. In 2004 I was invited to compose a new work for Stephen to be premiered at the Santa Barbara Chamber Music Festival. I was working on an opera about Houdini at the time, and I selected one of the arias from this work and adapted it for cello and piano. Gradually I began to make transcriptions of several of my song cycles and operatic arias for cello and piano. These pieces now make up the three books of Bowings without Words that is altogether a sprawling 45-minute work. In my performer’s notes I suggested to Stephen that he feel free to play one book of pieces at a time, or even make up groups of pieces from the three books that fit together in contrasting and logical ways.
Book I is based on my opera about Houdini (words by Dorothy Louise), Book II is based on a song cycle originally based on the poetry of Robert Frost (the lyrics are now based on Civil War letters) and Book III is based on my 1994 song cycle, Six Spanish Songs, based on the poems of Federico García Lorca. The title of the entire work refers to Felix Mendelssohn’s solo piano pieces Lieder ohne Worte, first published in 1832. I was also inspired during the composition of these pieces by Franz Liszt’s solo piano transcriptions of lieder by Franz Schubert.
My aim was to make these pieces for cello and piano something more than literal transcriptions, so freedom was used in adapting the vocal line for the cello. I decided to incorporate idiomatic string writing, but only to the extent that it would not obscure the essentially lyrical nature of the solo part. My feeling is that the cello is particularly capable of imparting the emotional content of these songs.
Book I is adapted from Disappearing Act, my opera about Houdini with a libretto by Dorothy Louise. The five movements in this collection are:
I. We Are Here
II. From Beyind the Grave
III. Can an Echo?
IV. Don't Give Up!
V. Land's End
June 11-13. 2004: Cellist Stephen Balderston and pianist Edith Orloff at the Santa Barbara Chamber Music Festival, Santa Barbara, Ca.