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Composed: 2013-2014
Length: c. 28 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd = alto flute, 3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), contrabass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets (3rd = piccolo trumpet), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (large rainstick, small bass drum, mark tree, 5 tuned gongs, almglocken, drum set; vibraphone, 4 bongos, police whistle; sandpaper blocks, marimba, glockenspiel, 8 tuned gongs; large bass drum, maraca, 2 congas), harp, piano (= celesta), strings, and chorus

First LA Phil performances (U.S. premiere)

Karawane was commissioned by the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Bamberger Symphoniker, and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.  Lionel Bringuier conducted the world premiere in Zurich in September 2014.

Karawane for mixed chorus and orchestra was written between January 2013 and July 2014. For a long time I had been thinking of writing a large scale work for that combination, but had to abandon the project for various reasons, mainly schedule related, but also for not having found the right text material.

When it became clear that the first performance of the new piece would take place in Zurich I felt that I’d like to find a connection to the 20th-century cultural history of the city, and decided to study the Dada movement, which was born in Zurich in 1916. Soon I settled for perhaps the best-known Dada poem (or “Lautpoesie,” “Sound Poetry” as it was called) by Hugo Ball, the founder of Dada, author of the Dada Manifesto, and the central figure in all the activities of Cabaret Voltaire, the first forum of the early dadaists.

Karawane is a short poem, consisting of 17 lines of synthetic language. I say “language” despite the fact that from a strict point of view of linguistics it cannot be described as such, as it lacks the most important element of a language: the process of semiosis to relate signs with particular meanings. Yet, Ball’s Sound Poetry is capable of evoking vivid images – intended by the author or not. In his own words: “I let the vowels fool around. I let the vowels quite simply occur, as a cat meows... Words emerge, shoulders of words, legs, arms, hands of words. Au, oi, uh. One shouldn’t let too many words out.”

What makes the case of Karawane intriguing is that in the miniature novel Tenderenda der Phantast (published posthumously 1967) Ball describes the poem as “Schilderung einer Elefantenkarawane aus dem weltberühmten Zyklus ‘gadji beri bimba’ ” (Description of a convoy of elephants), whereas at the time of the original Dada Manifesto (1916) no reference to any “meaning” occurred. Again as Ball puts it: “I don’t want words that other people have invented. All the words are other people’s inventions.”

Here I must deviate a bit and mention that in Tenderenda, just before Karawane is presented, a highly bizarre gestalt appears: Der Verwesungsdirigent, conductor of decay, a decomposer. A distant colleague, I imagine.

I found the idea of a convoy of heavy animals, jolifants — a travelling circus most likely — oddly fascinating. I started to imagine a circus lost in time and space, in endless slow motion through strange landscapes towards the next performance with or without audience, no purpose other than keeping moving. (I believe most musicians after some decades on the road can relate to the idea.)

Therefore, the form and narrative of Karawane are cyclical, a bit like climbing up a mountain where you see the same landscape again after every rotation, but from a different angle and distance. Familiar but not identical shapes. In this case, the mountain slope could be something like the stairs in Escher’s lithograph Ascending and Descending, where people are doomed to walking endlessly going neither up or down — or both at the same time.

Karawane consists of two parts, which start almost identically: a crowd speaking or whispering lines of the poem, stopping and starting again until words become music. This is another Swiss homage in the piece: memory of a collaboration with Christoph Marthaler some years ago in Salzburg.

From time to time this massive cortège gains momentum, but mostly the kinetic energy and pulse dissolve after a while into something more diffuse, quiet, and dreamy. I’m mostly using the poem as phonetic material, sounds without a particular semantic content, but there are episodes where the choir sings entire lines of Ball’s text as a chant, a simple melodic line rotating slowly around a few small intervals. Sometimes the choir sings long phrases on single vowels, thus becoming instruments of the orchestra.

— Esa-Pekka Salonen