Back to works

Colonnades (2009)

Instrumentation: Piano
Duration: ca. 100'
Recipient of a Presser Award and a Morton Gould Young Composers Award
Premiere Dates: October 23, 2009, Baltimore, MD; November 8, Danbury, CT; November 9, Marblehead, MA; December 4, 2009, Tulsa, OK; January 3, 2010, Fort Worth, TX

Program Note

“He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.” -Jorge Luis Borges, from The Garden of Forking Paths


Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths describes a mystical author whose crowning work is a literary labyrinth, in which all possible outcomes of a given scenario spin out simultaneously. If that fictional author were to be reinvented today as a musician, he might resemble the multi-faceted Douglas Buchanan. The 25-year-old composer’s musical life is wide-ranging, and his creative pursuits also include writing and painting. Above all, Buchanan emanates hunger for knowledge and understanding, and he will use any of the avenues available to him in pursuit of a grand idea. Nowhere is this quality more evident than in his newest and largest composition, Colonnades.

Colonnades draws upon Buchanan’s compositional and literary talents, as well as his considerable dexterity at the piano. The work was born out of his recital performance of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, which sparked his interest in writing a large-scale cycle of his own. The project mutated through various concepts until 2008, when a one-movement piano composition triggered ideas for a more thorough examination of the materials (not unlike the “Goldberg” Variations, which expanded from a small pre-existing piece). Guided by Bach’s model, Buchanan attempted formal processes of variation, but he discarded them as too academic; that left him free to explore more intuitive structures, and led him to create a poetic frame on which to drape the music. In forming a 32-movement piano cycle with links to poetry, Buchanan also referenced a more immediate precedent, Vanishing Pavilions by his own teacher at Peabody, Michael Hersch. One way in which Colonnades differs from the Hersch model is that Buchanan wrote the texts himself, the 28 linked poems (four movements are interludes without text) constituting a substantial opus even independent of the music. The title places “colonnades” central in the listener’s mind, evoking connected rows of semi-independent columns, or, alternatively, an ordered row of tall trees. For a work built on interplay between ideas of humanity and nature, the duality of the title is particularly apt.

The multiplicitiesof Colonnades take root in the first movement. Visually, the text presents itself in three columns, united under one rainy, gusty preamble, like a dust-clearing storm cloud. The left column introduces “young hills,” “impatient to touch the sky but unsure what transcendence will bring” (we will encounter seekers again before the work is out); the middle column ponders mountains “raising their peaks and valleys beyond reach” (the formidable strength of nature is a central force in the work); the right column introduces humanity, with its “clockwork” and “winding decisions” (manmade forms and dysfunctions bear the brunt of the piece’s ire).

The musical striation also begins immediately: an ascending burst launches the piece, followed by low, consonant dyads. The baritone-range continuation recalls the bygone simplicity of organum and monastic liturgy, offset by crunching dissonances and metric displacements.  These materials wend their way, plaintively, to the treble clef, and grow into thudding tight-voiced chords that claim space as a new stratum.

The following three movements continue the musical development of bold and dramatic gestures, encountered in the form of Angry, scraggle-tongued plants and the title-movement, Colonnades. That poem describes “the stone-brick path [that] curves through each cloistered history, / moving through hours to wayside disbelief, / driving its insinuate way / toward the bright heart of the world.” Musically, a step-wise ascending figure seems to echo footfalls on the “path.” Traces of this stepping music resound throughout the work, and the idea of a “path” functions like a spine for this long creative organism.

One clue about the larger shape of Colonnades comes in the use of the hours of the Catholic liturgy in the movement titles. Encountered in the fourth movement, Prime sets the scene as early morning. Yet, in a paradox that is typical of this work, these post-sunrise movements are already full of “ruination” and “dilapidation,” remnants of an earlier history we have stumbled upon. The slow, nostalgic music of Prime has an air of arcane ritual, intoning perfect-fifth intervals and repeating a mysterious three-note motto. The following interlude floats with a seamless melody over steady accompaniment, acting as an elegiac moment of pause and reflection.

With the “path” laid out and the “ruination” identified, the true journey begins with the Salmon, “water’s messenger,” as the first guide. This movement is one of many to employ formal contrapuntal technique, in this case double canon by inversion. Such technical details demonstrate a link to the Bach inspiration, but they operate in the background behind a flood of visceral sounds. In its sweeping totality, Colonnades is a reflection of the Romantic ideals of grandiosity and catharsis, albeit with structural tools borrowed from the Baroque. (In other words, Buchanan is as indebted to Beethoven as he is to Bach.)

The next movements reveal the crumbling dystopia of Colonnades. In Sign-Post Cities, the “straying cities” are “shocked by their own indifference.” Annunciation contains another message, a mannered sonnet-rant that may already be too late: “these threads are set ablaze to burn / as heavy-handed poets speak of royal doom.” The next liturgical hour, Terce, is marked by “the sins of old” and “new blasphemies,” with devilish contrapuntal trickery including canon in retrograde and a passacaglia. The Foot of the Cuckoo is “where we sacrifice what we birth and it dumps us out,” a harsh indictment juxtaposed with the prophecy of the birth of Christ. Continuing in a contemptuous vein, The Glass Head of State is“severed and spiders clamber over.”

Midway through this 12th movement, we reach an important marker: “A lone messenger waits on the hillside.” Colonnades proves to be an archetypal “hero’s journey” with phases of descent, struggle, transformation and redemption. Buchanan’s hero is intentionally vague, sometimes Christ- or Buddha-like, other times violent and shadowy, not even always human – later we see a vegetal hero on the “lone-tree hill.” Like all else in Colonnades, even the hero is fragmented and dichotomous, expressed musically through formal inversion and retrograde, veiled poetically by layers of metaphor and abstraction. The hero’s struggle will be to scour the “broken messages,” a necessary destruction that enters in the form of “wolves” in the 13th movement, marked by incisive and volatile rhythms. In Sext, a panicked crisis of faith arises when “pushing for welcome, / the frightened Kyries amass themselves against the gates of Heaven.” Following this point of great turmoil and confusion, an interlude hovers with a cool watchfulness, serving as a conduit to the work’s intermission.

The second half of Colonnades promises transcendence, but first the stormy abyss must be re-established: Clouds bring “truths too hard for holding in the still of the mind,” and Epitaph spills “red blood on the marble.” At this dark point in the descent the piano journeys up and down in wide-ranging figures, as if testing the directions for a way forward. Obliquely, we return to a shadow of the hero in “as a Young Man” – the “knife-grin” and “crimson juices” connect this obscured figure to the preceding sacrifice.

After a still interlude, Vespers introduces a new strain of reconciliation. After so much scathing music and language of separation and contrast, we come to the first taste of a transformative middle path:

 this half-light,
  so as to make all things greyly shadowed
    and thus (imp)ossible
     and therefore


The steady quarter-note chords provide a unifying thread, like the ground bass of a Chaconne.

As Colonnades arcs into the evening hours, flashes of light and mysterious knowledge begin to enter. In Lone-tree hill, the “once-wholesome mantle of sky” is “now a furnace of red,” and Twin Flints “spark in the dark of the wood.” The Eye, “the sole Watcher in the Night,” “waits for the unknown purpose to arrive.” All this anticipation builds to the nighttime hour of Compline, and the Ritual of Ash and Stone, “the final duel-duet of saturation and surrender.” This is the moment of musical reckoning, with shadows of the first movement and other material returning for re-examination. Meanwhile, the text offers a sign that, even in the intensity of the ritual, something is missing: The poem uses only half the letters of the alphabet. (This device mirrors a more obscure absence in Colonnades, which never uses the pitches F or C until the final movement.)

The final ascent of Colonnades begins with the “mourning” and “weeping” of On Frost’s November and the “remembrance-soaked air” of The Trial of Memory. Replacing the prior cynicism toward man’s creations, the prayer-like cellophane cross makes a place for all things under “the Lord Above.” These three movements are brief and forthright, dwelling together in the melancholy mood of reflection that has developed in the interludes. The next movement encompasses its own contemplative trilogy, when Matins ushers in “three angels [holding] aloft a crown  /… Bidding the King’s welcome.”

As at the beginning, the scenery widens to panoramic views of nature. The final four movements connect to each other, textually and musically, as they ruminate on natural wonder. Finally, in the concluding Lauds (dawn prayer), paired with the contrasting subtitle The Glories of Sunset, we glimpse for one last time “the traveler, / … where warm-spread rays open wide the beaming arms / to gather home the scattered.” The withheld pitches of F and C appear, trumpeting their pure resonance as a final benediction. It is an ending of arresting serenity in the wake of much strident music, and a final paradox in a work that defies conventional understanding. Comprehension may come with an appreciation that we have followed Buchanan into his subconscious musings—and it is only natural that such an inner world should be chaotic and disarmingly vivid. What is remarkable is that he has brought these visions to light in one of the most vulnerable forms imaginable, a solo concert work. From his lone seat at the piano, his two hands spin out many parallel and overlapping trajectories, a world that is both Day and Night, Past and Future, Ruined and Redeemed. It is not just a Garden of Forking Paths; it is a vast forest of Colonnades.

— Copyright © 2009 Aaron Grad.



Score Preview

Your browser isn't supporting embedded pdf files. You can view the Score here.

Your browser isn't supporting embedded pdf files. You can view the Score here.