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Avner Dorman

Publisher: G. Schirmer

Variations Without a Theme (2001),
G Schirmer Inc
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
15 Minutes
Programme Note
Avner Dorman Variations Without a Theme (2001),
Composer Note:

Back in the summer of 2001, when I set out to compose Variations Without a Theme I decided on a specific challenge for myself as a composer. Since my early composing days I had studied the variations of the masters, such as Bach, Beethoven, Prokofiev, and Lutosławski, and was always very much taken by their ability to use very limited materials and create great masterpieces. I wanted to take on this challenge myself, but with a twist. Instead of using a lyrical theme as the basis of Variations, I decided to use some of the basic elements of music: the repetition of a note, an ornament, scales, and the half-step interval.

Since my musical taste covers a wide range of ‘styles’, I explored how these basic elements are used in various musical genres: Jazz, Middle-Eastern Music, Avant-Garde, Indian Music, Rock, and, of course, the Romantic symphonic tradition. For example, the opening part of Variations uses a short ornament based on half steps using the pitches E, Eb, F,and Gb. This motive is similar to Middle-Eastern ornamentation, yet later in the piece, when it’s inverted and transposed it becomes one of Bach’s favorite motives Bb-A-C-B (or in German B-A-C-H). Later in the piece I used the inversion of these intervals (as major 7ths) to create a sound world much closer to that of Shostakovich and Schnittke.

The form of the piece is as follows:

Variation 1- The first variation opens with a wild thrust of oriental gestures in the woodwinds over a persistent repeated note. The short ornaments are used in a canon and gradually become falling oriental scales. During this opening variation, Jazzy rhythmic elements slowly take over the simple repeated note of the accompaniment.

Variation 2 – In this variation the bass continues the Jazzy feel by playing a “walking bass” while the woodwinds continue to explore the opening ornaments only in a sparser version, adding silences in between the entries of the motives.

Variation 3 – This variation is based exclusively on rising scales in the harp, celesta, woodwinds and solo strings.

Variation 4 – In this variation, the repeated notes move to the foreground played
by the flutes, clarinets, and small bell-like instruments. In the background the opening oriental gestures are played very slowly by the strings.

Variation 5 – All the elements of the opening section come together, building up to the culmination of the first part of the piece.

Variation 6 – This is the first of several slow variations. Based on ornaments and scales, it is ambient in nature, exploring different soundscapes of the orchestra.

Variation 7 – The seventh variation is a flute cadenza. The original ornamental figure is used here by the flute, and as an echo effect in the orchestra.

Variation 8 (the tingly variation) – This variation is inspired by Bartók’s idea of Night Music. However, this night is in the city, not out in the country, so gradually the peaceful quiet becomes a haunting city night scene.

Variation 9 – The ninth variation is the longest, most elaborate, and most passionate in the entire piece. The half step is inverted into a major seventh fall (in the trumpets) and begins an expressive section. In hindsight, I think that this variation is the one most influenced by the events that happened in the world as I was composing the piece (the Intifada in Israel, and later 9/11) and has a doomsday feel to it.

Variation 10 - Before the recapitulation, an almost tragic static variation recalls different sections of the piece, with solos in the piano and horn, and tutti recollections of earlier sections.

Variation 11 - The recapitulation is a multi-partite fugue which brings together elements from all of the variations. The ending is expressive and energetic. All the musical realms come together yet each preserves its identity.

— Avner Dorman

  • G. Schirmer / AMP:
  • Ensemble
    Bowling Green Philharmonia
Avner Dorman's Variations without a Theme shimmered beautifully in its slow, lyrical section.
Phyllis Rosenblum, Santa Cruz Sentinel,15/08/2008
Avner Dorman's Variations Without a Theme was...internally eclectic, relying on specific intervals and mottos for its many permutations.
Scott MacClelland, Metro Active,13/08/2008 was hard to miss the cacophonous drama, the whirling, dancing energy, the occasional delicacy, and the final wild dramatic flourish that almost shook the image of Christ loose from the cross.
Jason Victor Serinus, San Francisco Classical Voice,10/08/2008
Anyone who thinks classical music is in a creative slump has clearly never heard the work of Avner Dorman. A 31-year-old Israeli-born composer, Dorman is already well known overseas for writing music that mixes classical techniques with jazz, rock and Middle Eastern music. Now, after recently becoming the youngest composer on the roster of the prestigious publishing house G. Schirmer, Dorman seems set to become a prominent composer in America as well. Certainly, he deserves a big reputation for writing works such as Variations Without a Theme (2003), which opened the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s classical program last week at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Composer John Corigliano, who taught Dorman at Juilliard, described the piece as sounding like the symphonic equivalent of an “Arabic market.” Without question, there’s a frenetic quality to this music that calls to mind the bustle of an Arab bazaar; moreover, the music is positively redolent of Middle Eastern harmony. Yet the most remarkable thing about it is its extreme musical economy. As the title suggests, Dorman dispenses with a traditional theme and instead bases his entire 20-minute work on just a few musical odds and ends—a repeated note, an ornament, a few Arab-flavored scales and a half-step interval. It’s all amazingly simple, but the end result is sophisticated music that cleverly explores both Eastern and Western sonic worlds. In the opening, the woodwinds play an ornament consisting of E, E flat, F and G flat. It’s clearly an Arab-tinged decoration, but Dorman later gives it a German twist, transposing and inverting the notes to form one of old Johann Sebastian’s favorite motifs—B flat, A, C, B (in German musical notation that motif is spelled B-A-C-H). One more inversion and—presto—the motif sounds like music out of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s notebook. There were other equally imaginative moments in this piece—the jazzy rhythms and Ellingtonesque walking bass lines, the sparkling harp and celesta notes, and that final, catastrophic pileup of dissonance, which resulted in a series of downward arching violin slides that released tension like air escaping a balloon. To their credit, guest conductor Asher Fisch and the NSO gave this dauntingly difficult music their all, playing with passion, precision and an unfailing sense of drama.
John Pitcher, The Nashville Scene,05/04/2007
…Avner Dorman, a composer whose piece “Variations Without a Theme” started the evening off with a bang. The work combined relatively simple musical elements into a set of complex variations that, as Dorman mentioned in his comments before the performance, suggested the frenetic cultural variety and fullness of life in the Middle East. The fourth variation was fascinating. It was sparsely orchestrated and rhythmically wicked as the flutes, clarinets, and percussion traded tiny bell-like passages. Time seemed to break down on a small scale as phrases were stretched to different lengths, while on a larger scale, the variation’s pulse always drove forward. Erik Gratton, principal flute, played splendidly as he provided the connective tissue between nearly every variation. The piece built to a sort of catastrophe in the ninth variation where the orchestra crescendoed to an explosion followed by a slow downward glissando by the strings. The following two variations recapped a number of musical elements that went before, but now, after the catastrophe of the 9th (of 11) variation, they sounded more driven. Local rhythms became more insistent making each recapitulated musical element more focused, though each was played now with many others. Along with Gabriela Lena Frank’s piece from January, it’s one of the most compelling new works I’ve heard this year.
Jonathan Neufeld, The Tennessean,30/03/2007
...Freshness also marked the opening of the concert with Variations Without A Theme by the young Israeli composer Avner Dorman. Beneath the fun and acrobatic surface, the piece carries great courage to directly express emotions and reveals a fascinating approach – as well as the virtuosity to fulfill it – in handling a large symphonic ensemble.
Noam Ben Ze'ev, Haaretz Daily Newspaper,25/11/2003
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