The Genesis of a Duo

by Hugh Aitken

Excerpt of Duo for Cello and Piano by Hugh Aitken.

The above MP3 is excerpted from a live performance that was recorded on February 29, 2000 at the Carpenter Center in Richmond, VA. Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma appear courtesy of Sony Classical.

Except for the voices of a few singers, the cello has long been my favorite instrument. I featured it in the two "Bartok" string quartets I wrote as a student, but it wasn't until 1980 that I composed For The Cello, one of a series of unaccompanied works I wrote for all the standard orchestral instruments. Even though some of it was, I now think, too scrambly for that noble instrument, Fred Zlotkin premiered it and played it here and there. I long planned to do some rewriting based on his advice, but new projects kept interfering. I did finally get back to it, but in an unexpected way.

Emanuel Ax had been in several of my theory classes in the Juilliard Preparatory Division when he was in high school. Years later, after he had begun to play duo recitals with Yo-Yo Ma fairly often, I was one of probably many, many composers who were generous enough to let that pair know that they would be willing to write a new piece for them. I don't think I ever actually expected it to lead anywhere, but one summer at the Aspen festival, Ax and I were walking to lunch when he said, "Oh, by the way, Yo-Yo and I would be happy if you were to write a duo for us." ("by the way" ????? )

I knew before lunch was over that my earlier unaccompanied piece, For The Cello, would be involved in some way, though it took me some months to discover how. (I have long thought that the best music is discovered rather than constructed.) It gradually became clear to me that Duo for Cello and Piano would be in one continuous movement, though with a great variety of affect. It had to begin, as did the earlier work, with a brooding, non-metric adagio for the cello alone that would eventually arrive at the tuneful, dance-like closing section. After the opening adagio, the piano would enter unobtrusively, this new section being marked amabile e mesto. Then, a gradually growing sense of excitement and tension, interrupted by a somewhat blues-y tune for the cello accompanied by a monodic line in the lowest register of the piano. Back to a fast tempo for the concluding several minutes. To compose for performers of such caliber was both daunting and thrilling.

One other aspect may be of interest. I had taught a course in the music of India for some years, falling in love with that wonderful tradition, or group of traditions. My wife and I traveled there twice, including several days at the week-long festival of Thyagaraja's music in the south of the country. I became fascinated by some of the rhythms and rhythmic patterns improvised by players of the mrdangam, a barrel-shaped drum that rests on its side in front of the player. A friend, David Nelson, had studied this drum in India and did his Ph.D. dissertation on its music (Mrdangam Mind, Wesleyan, 1990). The patterns in one of the solos he transcribed and analyzed so obsessed me that I have used them in five pieces. In the Duo they are presented by the piano alone in the second section and then developed here and there later in the piece. Another swiping was of a couple of the attractive little tunes that are used by students to learn ragas, which are scales and phrase-types that are the bases of all the melodies and melodic improvisations in Indian music. These are used in the closing pages. None of this comes across as sounding exotic, by the way.

I had to wait a long time for the premiere, given my players' schedules. In the late winter of 2000 they presented it in Atlanta and Richmond. Who knows whether they'll do it again? (If only the silk road had passed through southern India!) Fred Zlotkin played the New York premiere at Hunter College with Peter Basquin this past April and they plan to do it in more venues.

I'll close with another hope for the future of the Duo; my son Peter took up the cello not long ago at age 53, to my great delight. May he live long!

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