Monday, March 02, 2009

Finishing the Violin Sonata - Finally

When people wonder why it’s taking me so long to finish this piece, they look at me with a sense somewhere between pity and understanding, assuming that “he’s a slow composer.” I would rather think of it as being a “painstaking composer,” but no, it’s true, it took me two years to complete a symphony, a year to do a string quartet and a little over three years to come up with a five-movement violin sonata.

And I’m delighted to say – slow, painstaking or whatever – that the Violin Sonata was “finished” on Saturday afternoon at 5pm. There was a certain thrill to have it move from the “in” box to the “almost out” box the same day I was going to hear the world premiere of the Violin Sonata by Philip Glass, though if anyone heard the two of them back-to-back they would never accuse me of cribbing anything from Glass’s latest work. (I blogged about the Glass Premiere over at the Market Square Concerts blog here and here.)

Actually, one of the ironies of my finishing this piece and attending this concert, then, was hearing the Ravel Sonata in G Major, always a favorite of mine. The Ravel’s 2nd movement is the famous “Blues” movement. It was a nod to Ravel that my sonata’s 2nd movement is called “Blues Interruptus” (see two earlier posts here, here and here). But beyond that, there’s not much similarity.

I shouldn’t be too concerned about taking my time, though, especially since (being laid off), time is one thing I have, now. After all, Ravel spent four years working on his violin sonata and then Brahms spent some 20 or 25 years between the time he started a symphony and finally completed one.

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It didn’t start out being a Violin Sonata.

The first sketch for it came up during work on the last movement of the Symphony in October of 2005 but it didn’t work for the orchestra and sounded more like it might make a good piece for violin and piano. So I thought I would use it for that once John Clare, a former work colleague of mine and an amateur violinist, talked about performing together. So I took a break from the Symphony and quickly wrote out what I called a “Nocturne.” It was sketched between October 22nd and November 5th, 2005 – a very short time for me, two weeks, even for a three-minute piece – followed by two days of realizing the sketches into something we could play from. Five days later, we performed it at a Volunteer Brunch at work even though, since it was part of the luncheon music, no one really heard it under the talking and clinking of glasses and silverware.

As I worked on it, I knew there would have to be a few other pieces, at least two more. I figured maybe a scherzo and then something more substantial to begin.

In April of 2006, I began jotting down some ideas for a “chaconne,” a rather large idea considering the historical baggage this trundled along with it – Bach’s famous one was daunting enough. I thought this would be the last piece. Each of them, however they turned out, would become independent enough to be played on their own but convincing enough with their own internal logic to make a complementary set. There were things jotted down in May I labeled “possible ending for scherzo?” There were plans for three pieces, then four pieces.

Instead of writing the Chaconne, I began a set of Theme and Variations, taking up composing again in July of 2006. July 30th is the first sketch of something recognizable for what became the opening of the 1st piece. I finished it on September 28th, 2006, at 12:15pm, just before heading into work for the day. Two days later, I jotted down some ideas for the Scherzo and mapped out a possible set of five pieces, now. There was the Nocturne in 5th place, the Theme & Variations in 1st place, a large nondescript area blanked out for the middle of the arch, and two short scherzos, now, one a Blues pastiche and the other some kind of rapid scorrevole interlude in between in the 2nd & 4th places. There were questions if this wasn’t too much or too long – not to mention a concern for how realistic it was for me, at the time, to be writing this much if John and I were planning on doing some kind of recital in the spring of ‘07. I would have to write the whole thing to match our playing levels and I knew mine was on a pretty low level, not having practiced seriously for well over a decade...

The first scherzo, the Blues, was begun almost immediately. The idea from the beginning had been to take a blues-like idea and treat it in my own musical language that uses all 12 notes of the chromatic scale, is not traditionally tonal, and bases its structure on the Golden Mean which means, rather than standard blues patterns, the phrases would be of unequal lengths and usually in combinations of, say, 5 + 3 or 8 + 5, following the Fibonnaci series. And the “trio” of the scherzo was an interruption based on a beat-box rhythm often heard in my mid-town neighborhood frequently serenaded by drive-by boom-boxes. There would be a little bit of theater involved between violinist and pianist as the piano-player starts drifting off into the world of rock and the violinist keeps trying to drag him back to the music at hand. Finally, the rock beat gets too enticing, the pianist gets carried away and eventually the violinist gives up and joins in before, in true da capo fashion, they decide to return to the opening Blues material.

This was almost completed by December at which time I got side-tracked by the idea of writing a Christmas-related piece and then clobbered by new upstairs neighbors who made it difficult to compose in my usual before-work schedule. As luck would have it, my new neighbors also worked 2nd shift and were sleeping-in right over where my piano was.

Then my mother went into the hospital unexpectedly in mid-February and died a week later, so I was now no longer in the mood to be working on a silly kind of scherzo. Moving into the house by April and getting away from my neighbors, I still wasn’t able to get my stuff out of the apartment because of health reasons until November. The piano made it by July by which time I was ready to start writing again, but this time I wanted to do a song cycle based on some of my mother’s favorite biblical verses for mezzo and orchestra, a work I called “Evidence of Things Not Seen” which I began in September, finally, and finished around the first anniversary of her death.

Then I went back, polished the sketches for the Blues Interruptus and began work on the Chaconne which had originally surfaced back in 2006 as a germ of an idea but now, in April of 2008, began taking shape. Preliminary sketches and trial-runs – basically two months’ worth of “pre-compositional” issues that needed to be ironed out and began on May 20th – took me through the period when I was “laid off” at work, the actual composition not beginning until July 20th.

Oddly enough, this piece was in two parts – “Aria & Chaconne” as it eventually evolved. Instead of being like an “Introduction and Allegro,” these were two simultaneous movements: the violin played the Aria, the piano played the Chaconne. So I wrote the Chaconne (the piano part) between July 20th and October 2nd, then wrote the Aria (superimposing the violin part over the now existing completed piano part), finishing it on November 1st, 2008.

After writing some 70,000 words toward a novel during November, I spent the next few weeks “doing the dishes” – copying the score out for both the Scherzo and the Chaconne into a more finalized draft from the original sketches. I always thought composing is like cooking, though cooking is not something I can actually do (and sometimes feel like I should add “either” to that statement). “Pre-compositional planning” is like putting together the menu for a big dinner party. Writing the music is like cooking the meal. Finishing it and going back over the now completed work is like eating the meal. The drudgery of copying is like doing the dishes afterwards: not much fun but necessary before you go on to the next day’s chores.

But then, looking at these four pieces – the Nocturne, the Variations, the Scherzo and the Chaconne – I tried to come up with some kind of order for them. I now went back to the sketches I scribbled down in the fall of 2006 with five pieces and the Chaconne, now the longest and most weighted movement in the batch, in the middle or keystone position of a 5-piece arch. I didn’t really want to spend more time writing yet another violin-and-piano piece...

But I really began thinking it did, in fact, need the contrast between the Chaconne and the Nocturne which now, first-written, became the last piece. And some fast scorrevole (scurrying) interlude would be just the thing. Besides, proportionally, compared to the other pieces, it would only need to be about 2½ minutes long – how long could that take, right?

The idea that it would be several different “elements,” each one of a recognizably different nature, came early. The trick was figuring out how it moved from one to the next. Work began on December 20th, 2008, starting not with the opening but with the second segment, a static, icy-sounding section. Now, considering how quickly all of this would fly by, some of these segments were only going to be two measures long: they didn’t need to blend one into the other since I had the idea it was more four sections – label them A, B, C and D – thrown into a blender, chopped fine and then reconstructed almost arbitrarily. In one sense, it was like listening to a radio where the signal kept drifting and you’d pick up one station and then another. Or, bored with the commercials on one TV channel, you click on the remote and move to another channel to see if there’s something interesting to watch there for a moment. Some of them, especially through the middle, would also overlap a bit. But even the contiguous segments of the A-section would not necessarily mean the music began at the beginning!

So I forged ahead, writing the C and D segments before trying to figure out how the scurrying A-sections would work out. By January 4th, 2009, when the first third of the piece was done (except for the very opening), I decided the best thing to do was skip to the ending, the last scorrevole section. Once I figured out how it would end, I might have a better idea of how to get there.

Over the past few years, I frequently realized if I wrote “in order” – from the beginning to the end – I often found myself with fewer working choices when I got to the end. This could be on various levels: frequently, a phrase needing to end with a certain cadence might not work out that way. So I ended up working phrase-by-phrase but from the end, backwards to the beginning. This meant the structural points were strong and the choices I needed to start the phrase were less intensive.

This of course is a problem because while you’re working in one direction, you have to keep in mind exactly how it’s all going to work out in time, playing it in the correct direction. It’s not as difficult as it sounds (and it would not sound good to play it backwards, anyway) but it takes getting used to.

After writing the ending - which was, curiously, not finishing the piece – I worked my way backwards segment by segment until I got to the point where I’d stopped writing on January 4th. But in the midst of this, I had to have surgery to repair a couple of work-induced hernias that would soon be approaching their own second anniversary. I didn’t feel like doing any composing – in fact, much of anything – for a week afterwards and even then it was difficult to concentrate (or even sit that long) for another week. But by February 20th, I was now ready to attack the beginning!

It felt odd, closing in on the opening, seeing the light at the start of the tunnel after two months of writing. Working backwards made me feel like the composer, Benjamin Button.

Then too, this was eight measures of 16th note sextuplets so each measure involved 24 notes in the violin, 24 notes plus the occasional chord in the piano - about 400 pitches that go by in about 21 seconds. And working with pitch-sets of six notes each – I’ve tried explaining my compositional language in earlier posts here and here – it became a long, slow schlog, not helped by the fact that frequently I would start the next day looking back and realizing there had been some mistake or tactical error the day before and I might spend six hours reworking what had taken three hours the previous day. It was like I was ready to do that last – or rather, first – measure for a week. Well, three days, actually, but it felt like a week of Mondays.

And then I saw how the opening beat should get things started – one of those “jump right in” beginnings, like tuning into a radio broadcast that started a few minutes ago – leaving just the second and third beats empty. Finally, as I was glancing at the clock and thinking “I have to stop, I have to get ready for the concert tonight,” these last two beats fell into place. It felt like the right choices – there were only a few that might work – and I hoped (dear God) that this would in fact be the END of the piece!

And so I looked through it later and thought “so be it.” The end was, in fact, my beginning. 3⅓ years later, one thing I am sure of, now: there will not be a sixth piece.

Now, the question came up a few months ago: is it “Five Pieces for Violin & Piano” or is it really a Sonata?

To me, a sonata, with all its historical baggage, implies more integrity between the movements and that’s what was stymying me. But as I kept going from one piece to the next, starting back in October, 2005, I realized how much I was concerned about making the harmonic set-choices work between pieces within some kind of logical structure, how each piece fit into a proportional balance (of course, it’s also very Benjamin Button-ish that the first piece I began so long ago is now the ending). But I think, finally, it really is a more integrated work and suitable to be billed as a single piece in five movements rather than five separate pieces.

But at least at this point – it’s done. And what’s next?

Well, I’m not going to Disneyworld, that’s for sure, but after I copy the score and the violin part, I’m looking forward to starting a new piece. What exactly, I don’t know, but we’ll see. For now, I need to “finish the paperwork” on this one.

- Dr. Dick

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