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Picture Studies (2012)

for orchestra
3333 – 4331 – harp – piano/celesta – timp.- 3 perc. – strings
duration: 27 minutes
Commissioned by the Kansas City Symphony & Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Premiered by the Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern conducting (February 1, 2013)


I. Intro
II. Three Pierrots
III. Repetition
IV. Olive Orchard
V. Kandinsky
VI. Calder’s World
VII. Miró
VII. Interlude
IX. Cliffs of Moher
X. Pigeons in Flight
In November of 2011, I received a commission from the Kansas City Symphony and the Nelson-Atkins Museum to write a 21st-century Pictures at an Exhibition. The idea seemed both intriguing and ambitious, and given my own interest in visual art, I welcomed the challenge. After conceptualizing the piece for six months, and visiting the Nelson-Atkins on three different occasions, I decided to compose a series of studies.

Unlike Modest Mussorgsky, who set all of his movements to the work of Viktor Hartmann, my piece brings eight seemingly disparate works of art to musical life. In honor of Mussorgsky and his original work (for solo piano), four of the ten movements were conceived in the form of piano etudes and later orchestrated. My main objective was to create an architectural structure that connected each movement to the next while creating an overall arc for the entire piece.

I used this series as a way of pushing myself both intellectually and emotionally as a composer. I felt inspired and liberated as I gave myself permission to explore new compositional terrain. The outcome is Picture Studies, a 26-minute work for orchestra based on four paintings, three photographs, and one sculpture. Creating this series pushed me in a new direction and allowed me to grow as an artist in the most unexpected ways.

The following impromptu notes were jotted down from initial impressions and repeated viewings of the artwork, after my selections had been made. These original notes helped dictate the form, style, and musical arc of each movement, and ultimately the entire piece.

I. Intro: Ghost-like piano theme (using the piano to pay respect to Mussorgsky) that transports the listener to the inside of the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

II. Three Pierrots (based on Albert Bloch’s painting, Die Drei Pierrots Nr. 2): Comedic, naïve, and excited. A triad will represent the three Pierrots, and throughout the movement the triad will be turned upside down, on its side, and twisted in every possible way. The form will be throughcomposed. End big.

III. Repetition (based on Kurt Baasch’s photograph, Repetition): Four figures walking, and each person is clearly in his or her own world. The idea of repetition can lend itself to an ostinato. This is a photograph, a slice of life, and represents only one moment in time. Take this concept of time and manipulate it. Change the scenery (lighting, shade, color), so to speak, with a shutter click before returning to its original state. ABA form with an abrupt switch to B to represent the shutter click.

IV. Olive Orchard (Vincent Van Goh’s painting, Olive Orchard): Extended impressionism. Colorful, full of love. Perhaps a meeting place for two lovers. Start thin, gradually build to an expansive texture, end colorful. ABC (C references A to show the organic growth of the piece).

V. Kandinsky (Wassily Kandinsky’s painting, Rose with Gray): Geometrically fierce, angular, sharp, jagged, violent, jumpy, and complex. A battleground. Mustard yellow, encapsulates a sustained intensity. Block structures, cut and paste.

VI. Calder’s World (Alexander Calder’s sculpture, Untitled, 1937): As if time has stopped, dangling metal, atmospheric, yet dark. Quasi-aleatoric gestures, perhaps improvised. Gradually fade to niente.

VII. Miró (Joan Miró’s painting, Women at Sunrise): Child-like, yet delirious. There appears to be a sexually ambiguous tone. Try something new, a saxophone or bombastic Eb clarinet solo. Something spontaneous, bouncy, tribal, and raw.

VIII. Interlude: Return of original Ghost-like piano theme with minimal additional orchestrations. Takes us to the final chapter to be played without pause until the end.

IX. Cliffs of Moher (Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photograph, Atlantic Ocean, Cliffs of Moher): Delicate and flowing, find a way to musically represent the ocean and cliffs in the most gentle and subtle means. A return to an ostinato.

X. Pigeons in Flight (Francis Blake’s photograph, Pigeons in Flight): I’ve never looked at pigeons this way. There appears to be so much joy, beauty, and depth. This will be the longest and most expansive movement. Fly away.


Adam Schoenberg
November 1, 2012