I composed Whistling in the Dark for Baltimore Symphony violist Peter Minkler to introduce a pair of concerts devoted to my music that were presented by the “Strathmore Music in the Mansion” series in 2013. It is subtitled “Introduction and 20 Variations on a Semi-Original Theme” because it is based, loosely, on a primary motive in George Rochberg’s Sonata for Viola and Piano (specifically, the first four notes heard in the viola). I have long loved Rochberg’s sonata; it is one of the major works of the viola repertoire, and Peter and I performed it on these same Strathmore concerts.
I found the phrase “whistling in the dark” in some program notes by Ned Rorem while perusing scores at the MacDowell Colony, where I was a resident fellow earlier that same season: Rorem wrote that “few composers enjoy whistling in the dark,” by which he meant that composers prefer to compose for an audience and/or specific performers rather than in the abstract. But the phrase itself generally means something more (potentially) sinister: one whistles in the dark because one is afraid of what lurks there—it is a way to create for oneself the illusion of company (something I did a lot of while walking home alone from my composing cabin in the dark woods at the MacDowell Colony).
Composing variations, it seems to me, is a way composers similarly stave off fear—we often complain of the abysmal blank page that defies us as we begin a new work. But when composing variations, we have only to honor our theme and the rest is pure invention; we are granted total freedom and the sphere in which to exercise it, and in the meantime encounter an excellent opportunity to hone our craft.
The order in which these variations appear in the printed score represents one possible ordering of them. The performer is encouraged to reorder the variations as s/he sees fit and need not perform all 20 at once. In my ordering, I repeated the “Introduction” as the “Coda” because it made sense to me to do so given the ordering I devised. The performer may decide not to repeat this movement, or may feel the need to repeat other movements, or none at all. I imagine my suggested ordering as five sets of four, with the “Coda” announcing the last set of four, as laid out below:
Introduction – Theme –
Variation – Stacked – Minor Obsession – Cascades –
In Memoriam J. C. – After M. H. – This, Not That – Retrogrades –
Canon – Hooked – 4ths and 5ths – Berceuse –
Chords – La Chitarra Spagnola – Passacaglia – Mirrors –
Amata – Moto Perpetuo – Farewell – Double