Three Dimensions for piano was composed in 1974 during Zaidel-Rudolph’s sojourn as a postgraduate composition student at the Royal College of Music, London. A performance of Three Dimensions by Wessel van Wyk elicited the following comments in Afrikaans: “Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph se “Drie Dimensies vir klavier” is heel eenvoudig een van die meevoerendste komposisies wat nog deur ‘n Suid-Afrikaner neergepen is…Dit is opwindend om te besef dat daar ‘n komponis in ons midde is wat met ware hartstog en virtuositeit vir die klavier kan komponeer”. [This is translated as: Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph’s Three Dimensions is simply one of the most captivating compositions for piano ever written by a South African…It is exciting to realize that we have a composer in our midst who can compose for the piano with true passion and virtuosity] – (Paul Boekkooi, Die Beeld, 3 September 1988).
The narrative goal of Three Dimensions appears to rest on the emotive power of the sounds themselves in their numerous and changing articulations. The juxtaposing of various sonic effects is achieved with convincing and logical coherence throughout. Conventional phrase and periodic construction has made way for building blocks of contrasting sonorities and kaleidoscopic tone colours. Carefully chosen intervals are organically transformed by means of intricate motivic and rhythmic permutations. Sound patterning frequently anticipates forthcoming structural material to lend structural unity, whilst at the same time allowing smooth transitions. The mirroring of elements between opening and closing subsections creates equilibrium and balance. The compositional style of this work is thus best described as eclectic because of the fusion of avant-garde and African stylistic traits.
Three Dimensions consists of three sections (of varying lengths) with programmatic subtitles:A European City Awakens (Bars 1-21; 21 bars in length)An African City Pulsates (Bars 22-83; 61 bars in length)An Eastern City Meditates (Bars 84-105;20 bars in length)
The above three subtitles have biographic origins in Zaidel-Rudolph’s career. As a student in Europe, she was exposed to a multitude of new musical ideas, yet she felt herself nostalgically drawn to her African roots with their pulsating rhythms and sounds. Philosophically and spiritually, she felt a strong affinity towards Eastern beliefs and spirituality (Interview: 05-07-2008).
This opening section of the whole work is of an improvisatory nature and in a sense symbolizes the over-all construction of the work – three subsections (building-blocks) of contrasting static timbres that are announced sequentially. The incessant and relentless reiterations of the patterns create a chant-like effect, almost like the far-off ringing of church bells in a generic European city.
The final subsection (bars 14-20), apart from providing the structural link to the “African” section, constitutes yet another change in timbre. The music is indeterminate in time, suspending the temporal element in the piece prior to the stamping, pulsating rhythms of Africa. In an interesting contradiction it could also be heard as a philosophical preparation for the advent of Africa and its ‘timelessness’.
The African-sounding section with its contagious rhythms is also divisible into various smaller subsections. The language here comprises a ritualistic style of writing; sustained muted colourations are interrupted by disjointed-sounding staccato patterns. Dense ostinato sound- layers are frequently punctuated by dissonant cross-rhythms. The irregular dotted patternings evoke the earthy , feet-stamping and dance-like invocations of the ancestors.
A bilinear structure that sounds typically African is found in bars 50-58. The right hand plays an undulating rhythmic pattern in a 7-note sequence in quavers and semi-quavers. The rhythmic grid causes a constant shift in placing and accentuation. Against this shifting ostinato, that reminds one of the sound of an Mbira (footnote), the left hand plays varied but larger intervallic shapes, the melodic contour of which (although rhythmically transformed),makes a direct reference to South Africa’s erstwhile national anthem, Die Stem. This quotation was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek reference. Little did Zaidel-Rudolph know, in 1974, that she would be the composer chosen to blend this melody with that of Nkosi Sikilel’i Afrika for the country’s first democratic official national anthem in 1995, twenty years later!
The concluding section of Three Dimensions highlights exotic timbrel effects. Proportional notation echoes the orientation of the third subsection of the European City section. Brief melodic motives, derived from a pentatonic Eastern scale, the hira-joshi, provide the pitch parameters for waves of glissandi and tremolo sounds. The plucking of the piano’s strings creates interesting oriental sonorities.
The Coda of Three Dimensions quotes the well-known religious theme, the “Dies Irae” (E –D# -E –C# -D# -B – [C#]). Philosophically speaking, this tempestuous finale points towards the final apocalypse, when all continents will be united in a final ‘dimension’. Dynamic application here is extreme (f, ff and fff) as this subsection represents the climactic culmination of a dramatic ending.