The tracks have vanished
Plenty of composers have written transcriptions of operas for solo piano, whether their own operas or those by other composers: think of Liszt’s virtuosic fantasias on the works of Bellini, Verdi, and Wagner; or, in more recent years, Thomas Adès’s playful “paraphrases” on his own operas.
The tracks have vanished is something different: it is a transcription from an imaginary opera—or rather, a still-unwritten one. I have become fascinated in recent years by Dostoevsky’s prophetic novel Demons (which is still better known in English as The Possessed—an old and inaccurate translation of its title). Demons tells a story that feels all too relevant today: it’s a tale of the rise of nihilism within a complacent and unsuspecting society. Specifically, it deals with the way that the spiritual malaise of young, privileged, bored, lost young men can have deadly consequences.
Normally, when I write instrumental music, I don’t think in explicitly dramatic terms; the musical materials themselves contain plenty of drama! But in this case, unusually, I did start from specific images and moments within the story.
The work is cast in two movements. The first is inspired, broadly speaking, by the dynamic between the two tormented young nihilists at the novel’s center. There is also a hidden little setting of Pushkin’s poem “Demons,” which serves as the novel’s epigraph: “Upon my life the tracks have vanished / We’ve lost our way, what shall we do?”
The second movement was initially inspired by a chapter—suppressed by a censor in Dostoevsky’s lifetime—in which one of the protagonists visits a monk and confesses to having cruelly taken advantage of a young girl years earlier.
But here’s the thing: music is music, and none of these dramatic ideas served as more than an initiating impulse. Just as Beethoven once said that the metronome markings in his scores were only valid for the first few bars, the narrative inspiration for each of these movements only proved to be valid for the first few bars. After that, the music had its own ideas.