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Throughout his life, Donatoni held to the belief that music is absolute and therefore should not be egotistical or be a means for self-expression. Convinced that a composer does not create but transforms, he adhered to the processes of transformation in a great number of his compositions, large and small. Applying intellect, imagination, ingenuity, and iron-willed determination, Donatoni struck out on an original path.

The frequent modus operandi of Donatoni, to elaborate upon and transform materials from his own previous compositions, is the one he used in Esa, dedicated to Esa-Pekka Salonen, his former student. This, his last work, is related to other pieces of Donatoni’s “In cauda” cycle, particularly to In cauda III and Fire (In cauda IV).

The orchestration of Esa is large, but only rarely do all of the instruments play together; the scoring, in fact, is quite sparse, which allows the motivic elements a prominence unfettered by textural thickness. The quiet aural ambiance of the opening arises from tremolo tone clusters moving in descending scale-wise passages in the strings; trumpets add to this pro- vocative texture, as do trills from the piano. A rapid motif following in the winds is a distinct, repeated presence, as is a short chromatic series of notes in even rhythm, which, in the Donatoni transformation mode, reappear torn apart rhythmically.

Shortly, a variant of the wind motif appears in divided strings, while at the same time vibraphone, marimba, and xylophone play the string tone clusters of the opening, with piano and harp contributing inner voices. When the percussion drop out, trumpets and horns provide a cushion of sound in long-held notes.

The music proceeds with these basic materials, deployed by Donatoni using the devices of transformation: contrary motion, varying a given set of notes by augmentation and diminution (longer values and shorter values, respectively), changing the note order of a motif, etc. In one section, the strings, divided into 10 parts, play identifiable chords together. With each part starting on a note that rubs against its neighbor, the effect must be vaporous.

“I love the kaleidoscopic world of Donatoni, the sudden twists and turns and the sheer beauty of the surface of the music. Not only did he manage to develop his very own language: he also learned to speak it,” said Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Esa (In cauda V) is a Los Angeles Phil- harmonic commission. Sadly, it turned out to be the very last work Donatoni completed. I was deeply moved when I saw the title and the dedication. The master had dictated his last composition to his assistants as he was no longer able to write himself.” — Orrin Howard