There’s nothing more fulfilling than discovering a piece of music for the first time. Because Metamorfose was a piece I commissioned, I had no way of knowing how it would sound before receiving the score from Clarice Assad. The commissioning process first started with my desire to have a piece created as an homage to my mother. I had no idea how to find the music of living composers or approach them, so I turned to Google. I stumbled across a 2009 piece by Clarice—Dreamscapes on YouTube—performed by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the New Century Chamber Orchestra and fell in love with her expressive palette and harmonic aesthetic. We got along like old friends immediately after I first approached her, and luckily she agreed to write me a “fantasy”-themed piece for viola and piano, 10–12 minutes long.
Since brand-new pieces of music have no recordings or archived performances, all we can do as artists is try our best to reveal the truths of the music. It is difficult but totally invigorating. Metamorfose is comprised of two movements—Crisálidas and Dança das Borboletas—and is a beautiful and reflective statement on the mourning process. As the title suggests, the music transforms over the course of the piece. It begins, first, with motives wrought with sorrow and anxiety, which gradually change their course and become motives of acceptance and even celebration, although still influenced by their original darkness. I think Metamorfose is a great piece not only because it is beautiful, but because it is deeply human.
I gave the world-premiere performance of the piece with pianist Henry Kramer in New York City in November. I first dove into the score in March 2017, when the work was hot off the press, and was so excited to begin the collaborative process between performer and composer (this was my first time commissioning a piece). Clarice, Henry, and I went quite in depth discussing details. We recorded the piece in April 2018 for my album Ascent, and altogether it was an extremely fulfilling experience. Of course, this second time around, I’m finding new details that remained hidden the first time: new harmonies to highlight, phrase-length revelations, and even new questions about structural markings like fermatas and ritardandos.
The composer’s musical directions are the clues that help unravel the interpretation of a piece: the notes and note values, character directions, metronome markings, articulations, slurs, fermatas, commas, and more. Studying these various markings in your part, and in the part of the other instruments you may be playing with, is crucial when making artistic choices.
Metamorfose has a few extended techniques that were difficult to master, including coordinating timing with a metronome that makes a cameo in the first movement, using the underside of the keyboard as a percussion instrument, piano harmonics, and double-stop trills in the viola. What I love about Clarice’s compositional style is that these techniques are used as means to an expressive goal instead of being the goal themselves. A musician needs to play with a certain degree of abandon when playing music that flows frequently between characters. However, it’s also important to hone in on the aspects within a program that are consistent, to help give the listener something to hold on to.
Player Violist Matthew Lipman, an Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient, has performed in recital at Lincoln Center and with the Minnesota Orchestra. His debut album Ascent was released in February 2019 by Cedille Records.
Title of Work Being Studied Metamorfose for Viola and Piano
Composer Clarice Assad
Date Composed Commissioned 2017, completed March 2018
Name of edition Virtual Artists Collective Publishing, first edition
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Strings magazine.