I have a distinct memory of a composition lesson I had in college (probably ca. 2005) where I told my composition teacher, “I swear will never write a piece for violin and piano.”
What I (think I) meant was: as I was developing my voice as a composer, the last thing I wanted to do was to compose a piece for the most traditional of instrumental combinations, those that Mozart, Beethoven, and Stravinsky all used. In order to avoid what I perceived as the anxiety of influence, I wrote pieces for the most unusual combinations I could come up with: soprano, double bass, percussion, and piano; saxophone, electric guitar, percussion, and piano; an orchestra with no violins; all sorts of other odd bands.
Almost ten years later (after numerous odd bands), my friend David Kaplan called me and suggested I write a piece for him and Rachel Lee Priday. Suddenly, I looked at this combination in the opposite way: in the hands of the daunting skill-sets of these particular performers, writing for violin and piano suddenly became a formidable challenge. Could I make my musical language work in this context? Could I write a work that adhered to a traditional fast-slow-fast structure? And could I use instrumental virtuosity as a way of exploring the timbral and architectural ideas I was exploring in other works?
The answer to these questions (and others that arose along the way) is my very traditionally titled Sonata for Violin and Piano. One of the primary challenges of writing my earlier portfolio of “odd band” works was blending instrumental timbres together: I would often use extended techniques or non-traditional means of sound production to create aural symmetries between these instruments. In my Sonata I use the same techniques, but the intimacy and intensity of the two instrument combination led my ambitions a step further: I wanted to create what I think of as a single meta-instrument, part violin and part piano.
The opening movement (“Fast and focused, with gradually increasing intensity”) opens with a violin solo, exclusively playing natural harmonics in perpetuo moto. As the movement progresses (and the violin part gradually transitions to open strings), the piano enters seamlessly and gradually envelopes the violin in a roaring and vibrant chorale.
The second movement (“Still and spacious, but always moving forward”) works in the opposite way: it begins as a plaintive piano solo. The violin part works as a kind of electronic looping effects pedal on the piano. I used every possible technique I could think of — harmonics, sul tasto, flautando, sul ponticello, tremolo, pizzicato, richochet — to color and distort the gradually evolving passacaglia in the piano. At some point, the violin “loops” lose track of the piano line until the one technique that has been absent from the piece finally dominates: traditional “cantabile” playing, which is the climax of the movement.
The final movement, marked “Dramatic, violent, rhythmic, very precise” joins the two instruments together in equal partnership. The piano’s violent stabbing gesture punctuates yet another perpetuo moto.
Almost all of my music tends to be narrative in nature: whether vocal or wordless instrumental, the music often points outward to a specific place, person, or memory. I wanted my Sonata to be free of that specific allusiveness: to invite the listener to draw his or her own narrative out of the work, leaving only the architectonic title Sonata as suggestion.
This piece was made possible by a grant from the Fromm Music Foundation. It is dedicated to Sarah Goldfeather.