23 September 2010

Notes for a Sonata

Viola Sonata, Opus 102

In the fall of 2006, I was still serving as a chorister at the Cathedral Church of St Paul in Boston, where I had been singing for perhaps six years. One of the new singers brought in by the then new music director was Peter Lekx, who (I soon learnt) was enrolled in a Master’s program at Boston University in viola performance. Early on in our acquaintance, I set to work on (what at the time I was considering a single-movement work) Tango in Boston for viola and piano. When the piece reached about the 60-measure mark, I set the sketch aside — Pete was quite musically busy, and in large part he was engaged in early music projects. Most practically, probably: at the time I did not know any pianist who would be capable of the piece as I was conceiving it.

At the time, though, I had mentioned the piece to several on-line acquaintances, including Dana Huyge. And late in June this year Dana got in touch to ask about the feasibility of completing a viola sonata for a September recital. Although I had thought of Tango in Boston as a stand-alone piece, the invitation to write a multi-movement sonata fired my imagination; I decided immediately that the existing sketch would serve as the basis for the third movement, and set to work on the first & second.

With Fair Warning, I set to write a piece bristling with energy, accumulating such momentum that the charged air would continue to drive the piece even in passages where the surface tempo has relented. In short, I wanted to open the Sonata with an eight-minute spitfire which would not quit. (A clarinetist myself, I wrote the whole Sonata, really, with the thought What would I have fun playing, if the piece were for myself?) I started writing essentially with that thought, and before concerning myself with specifics of the pitch-world. Before long I found that the material I had thus spontaneously generated, hinged readily upon a kind of octatonic scale which (in a curious geographical coincidence to this performance) I first employed in my doctoral dissertation at Buffalo. In terms of sonata design, Fair Warning takes indirect cues from Shostakovich, whose first movements generally referred to the tradition (often the Tchaikovskyan tradition of a Motto, apart from the Principal and Subordinate Themes), without mapping neatly onto the tradition. So with Fair Warning, I had in view the ideas of Exposition, of how a Development might proceed, of Re-transition and Recapitulation; and although I mention Shostakovich (and Tchaikovsky), I did not take them as direct “models,” as such a tack strikes me as violating their own spirit of sonata ‘discovery’. There are passages of ‘refracted unison’ which are a loose homage to the Massachusetts-born composer Alan Hovhaness. And there are pitch ‘corkscrews’.

I knew the middle movement would be called Suspension Bridge some time before I considered how I should approach it musically. The overall movement is governed by an underlying rhythmic pattern — an irregular and long-breathed pattern, which often fights against an out-of-phase “local” pattern in any given passage. It is that sense of rhythmic ‘process’ which I thought of as the suspension. The pitch world of the piece is a lark I drew up one day, a symmetrical scale which runs a perfect 15th, but in the center of which there is no perfect 8ve. In a sense, I feel that what sustains the movement, is the tension between its grand ‘skeleton’, and the spontaneity with which I approached its succeeding sections. Through the course of the movement I had in mind partly an idea of succeeding variations, partly the idea of an imbalanced arch. Truth to tell, I had no idea that the movement would begin with unaccompanied viola until I sat down one evening and started writing it. (As for Dave’s Shed, it is a place of contemplation, and yet it is no place; it is Walden Pond in Minnesota, if you like.)

My loose model for the completion of Tango in Boston was Chopin’s second piano sonata, whose Presto finale seems to fly by before you’ve drawn two breaths. That is, while on one hand I wanted an energetic movement at the other end of the “Bridge” from the first movement, I approached it more with a sense of lightness than of Grand Finale. The movement incorporates a couple of artifacts from the master of the tango, Astor Piazzolla; and also hearkens back to the two earlier movements, at one point superimposing disparate passages from the first and second one upon another.

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