These Are Not Estonian Flowers

string quartet

duration: 10 Minutes

Commissioned for the Aizuri Quartet by The Phillips Collection in celebration of the museum’s centennial year

“These Are Not Estonian Flowers” was written in response to Alma Thomas’s painting “Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers”

Program Notes:

Commissioned for the Aizuri Quartet by the Phillips Collection in Washington DC in celebration of the museum’s centennial year, “These Are Not Estonian Flowers” was written as a response to Alma Thomas’s gorgeous 1968 painting “Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers.” This is a piece about the process of relating to a painting as much as it is about the artwork itself. The first time I saw “Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers” was as a thumbnail image on my computer. I was struck by how much it reminded me of Estonian woven belts—the kind I remember from my childhood. I looked at the painting again the following day, this time on my phone, and wondered what I had been thinking—the painting felt vibrant and abstract, but nothing like an Estonian belt. A few days later, when I spent more time studying the painting (still on a screen, though a larger one), I noticed the layered nature of each mark, felt the movement emanating from the brushstrokes, and understood the title better. The painting sits beautifully on a line between abstraction and realism, but I realized my varied responses had just as much to do with my own way of looking at the painting, the desire to find something of myself in the artwork, or perhaps my own state of mind, as the painting itself. Every day I looked at the painting, I felt the impulse of music, though it often led in different directions. It felt false to choose just one of these paths and write a piece based on a single moment’s reaction, so I decided that for six weeks I would look at the painting every day or two, writing fresh music as a response. Sometimes I spent a long time with the painting and sometimes I just glanced at it; sometimes I looked on my phone and sometimes on my large computer monitor (in the time of Covid, I could only see the painting on a screen, not in person); sometimes I read about Alma Thomas, tried to absorb the title of the painting, or thought about the year (1968) and social context in which it was painted; sometimes I simply reacted to the colors and patterns in front of me. 

The fragments I wrote, some a few measures long and some almost 2 minutes long, alternately reflected the joyous vibrancy of Alma Thomas’s work, the delicate movement of her subject, and her way of abstracting nature through subtly varied and layered repetitions. I workshopped these excerpts with the Aizuri Quartet, who were generous collaborators through this process, and then began to throw them together, juxtaposing them a little like Alma Thomas’s juxtapositions of colors. As I worked combining these short snippets of music, I allowed the music to pull me away from the artwork and into the direction that it wanted to go. The fast alternation of different materials and tempos in the beginning of the piece gradually coalesced into longer stretches of more slowly developing music. As I approached the end of the piece, the music that emerged was a call back to the opening measure—a fragment of an Estonian folk song, a mirror of my initial reaction to the painting.

During the time I was writing this piece, I was dealing with health issues which limited both my mobility and my ability to sit for very long. Writing in response to the painting became a mini-ritual for me that I looked forward to, and kept me moving gently between my computer desk chair and the piano bench where I wrote. I don’t know if the way the piece seems to obsess over details, getting trapped in mini loops of repetition, is a reflection of Alma Thomas’s artwork, or is a product of my mental state as I wrote: the way I felt the weight and rhythm of the days as they passed. I do think that the end of the piece turns inward. My best experiences with art of any sort have come when it allows me to see a new perspective on things, often when it forces me to confront a world outside of my experience. But through this process of absorbing and responding to Alma Thomas’s work, I came to a new perspective on something which was already part of myself. The music that emerges at the end of the piece, with its veiled quote of an Estonian folk melody, is deeply personal, but the way it is arrived at, and the way the melody is layered and stretched out over a lilting cello bass line (that sits mostly in its own world), feels like a new approach for me, as if the painting had encouraged me to look at a piece of my own world with new eyes.