When friend and pianist Derek Polischuk contacted me about writing a new piece for him, he proposed an intriguing idea: compose a new set of pieces that will serve as a companion to Schubert's Impromptus
, Op. 142. As one who has always had a fascination and love of Schubert’s music, I was happy to take on such an exciting challenge.
Though tempted, I consciously decided to avoid writing a work that had great similarities to Op. 142 and instead opted to compose pieces which would be complimentary to Schubert’s. My set of Impromptus consists of four movements, each roughly the same length as Schubert’s pieces.
The title of the set comes from the Medieval world maps that had piqued my curiosity. These maps, also known as mappa mundae
, were created when knowledge of the world’s geography was limited, and much on these diagrams is left to the imaginations of the cartographers. It is the edges of these maps I find most interesting, with vast unknown areas of land and sea guarded by lions, dragons and other dangers of the unknown. Each piece in this set relates in some way to these maps, but also (directly or indirectly) to the Schubert work after which these were written.
I: Terra Incognita
The title of the first piece refers both to the label given to much unexplored land on ancient maps and to the techniques used by the pianist. Here the performer is asked to play the instrument in various unfamiliar ways, often using piano mallets to play on the strings and frame. This movement places the pianist in uncharted territory, asking him to be more percussionist than pianist.
II. Mare Incognitum
Referring to the practice in ancient map-making of labeling uncharted seas as incognitum, this movement portrays the quick ripples, long waves and powerful swells generated by the ocean. The piece opens and closes with music from different island chains familiar with waves large and small: The beginning borrows harmonies and rhythms from Indonesia, and the ending paraphrases an Okinawan melody.
III. Terra Pericolosa
Literally translated “dangerous land,” this piece is written in theme and variations form as a nod to Schubert’s third Impromptu from Op. 142. The theme itself contrasts quick, repeated notes against a deep slow chord progression in the bass register. Eventually the repeated notes expand into intense cluster chords before trailing off into the horizon.
IV. Terra Nullius
The title of this last piece is not found on ancient maps, but rather in historic legal texts. Terra Nullius
(“no man’s land”) was a designation given to lands which had not been claimed by any state and thus could be legally occupied by a foreign power, regardless of the presence of any established native cultures. This movement juxtaposes two musical ideas. The first is a direct quote from a fragment of an incomplete Schubert song, a vocal melody containing a wrong note. The second is the melody from “Kaulana Nā Pua,” (“Famous are the flowers”) a well-known Hawaiian song written in 1893 as a protest against the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom. In the end both melodies’ sources reveal themselves as the pianist first plays the accompaniment to “Kaulana Nā Pua” (imitating a Hawaiian instrument) then finishes with the entire Schubert song fragment, ending where Schubert did (with the wrong note).
The work The Ends of the Earth . . . is inspired by medieval maps, and
more specifically their boundaries: the limits past which the then-geographical knowledge ran out.
The first movement in fact gives the disc its marketing title: “Terra incognita”. It is an eight minute
sonic exploration of great beauty. Osborne uses extended percussion techniques (mallets to play on
the piano's strings and frame) as well as invoking gamelan, thus using unfamiliar ways of delivering
sound to mirror the unfamiliar borders of the old maps. Inevitably, the ear catches resonances of
the works of John Cage. The ocean-inspired second piece, "Mare Incognitum”, begins with an
Indonesian inspired opening and ends with an Okinawan melody. I hope that sounds fascinating,
because it is. There is much beauty here; the third movement brings in hints of Messiaen (“Terra
Pericolosa”—“Dangerous Land”) both in the chords used and in the presence of birdsong. By using
Theme and Variations, Osborne aligns it with the third of the Schubert Impromptus just heard.
Finally, “Terra Nullius”, a fascinating melding of an incomplete Schubert Lied and an indigenous
Hawaiian song. Invoking a monumental, timeless scale initially (and using silence intelligently and
effectively), the movement skilfully works in the Schubert fragment, ending on a question mark.
-Fanfare magazine, May/June 2014