by Rachel Lee Priday
Chris Cerrone’s Sonata for Violin and Piano is the first piece I have played (not to mention the first piece I have encountered bearing the title “Sonata”) where pure texture is the material – not first and second themes, not melodies or bass lines, not tone rows, not subjects or countersubjects. This music inhabits the surface of things. That’s not to say that it’s superficial, as critics unjustly accused Ravel of being. But the surface of things reveals an incredible range of tactile sensation, and it is the meeting place of two instruments. And that is true to the spirit of any Sonata for a combination of instruments: collaboration at its most intimate level.
I think of this Sonata as a living being: its form is cyclical, its material is its texture, and its movement is gesture (à la Webern-esque European modernism) animated by the rhythmic drive and pulse of minimalism.
In the first movement moto perpetuo (“Fast and focused, with gradually increasing intensity”), I’m spinning an oscillating, wispy, and brilliant thread of harmonics in loops of measured harmonies. Each harmonic loop is quaking with vitality, like atomic energy, most beginning softly and swelling as momentum gains. I am alone in the beginning, sending out this wave into the air. Then the piano joins me where I am, pulsing and doubling my pitches, so that our textures are interwoven, as they are throughout the Sonata – sounding not as two instruments, but as one meta-instrument. The intervals in both instruments together grow wider and gain power until they join and finally reveal a resounding, syncopated chorale – wild, free, stirring, and uplifting. I challenge anyone to frown during this part! What strikes me most about this movement is how masterfully Chris has paced this climax, anticipating just which harmonies would be satiating to the ear at the right time, at which intensity, and knowing the emotional journey that they signify. It reminds me of an insight a counterpoint teacher I had once suggested: that music is about directing attention.
The second movement (“Still and spacious, but always moving forward”) is the most challenging, as I’m supposed to be not my own voice, but the aura of another’s. Whereas I was the driver of the first movement, fashioning its texture, the piano is the main voice of the second movement, and I am its electronic loop pedal. I have to execute on the instrument a wide variety of different extended techniques on every single note, moving rapidly between sul ponticello (playing over the bridge) to sul tasto (playing over the fingerboard), between harmonics and fingered notes, between ff and pp, between pizzicato and bowed notes, and many shades in between. Here is an example of where musical sounds outnumber words to describe them: there are not enough relational verbs – anticipate, superimpose, fill in, color – to describe the thousands of ways the violin relates to the piano. Between the two instruments, there is a sense of space and placement between the sounds, making it three-dimensional. There is a comforting quality to this movement, a gentle rocking that is anything but predictable: it’s how human breathing would sound if it were in 5/4 time, or the feeling of being in motion underwater. The intervals are romantic – thirds, sixths, tenths – while the gestures are vaguely Second Viennese School (inspired by Webern’s Four Pieces). Eventually, as the rocking figures begins to get more complex and bear more weight, the violin and piano loops fall out of sync, one moving faster than the other; as if you’re looking back at yourself falling away. As the parts split, they fall away into a romantic climax; the intervals are widest, the chords are sustained, and it’s as if both instruments are luxuriating in a vista of space. After a short while, this romantic moment ebbs into what would almost be stillness; except that the next movement begins startlingly attacca.
The third movement (“Dramatic, violent, rhythmic, very precise”) brings back the moto perpetuo drive of the first movement, but its gestures are more static. I stay largely on single notes, repeating them in rhythm, while these textures are punctuated by jabbing figures in the piano that spell out short motifs. This is the most earthy and grounded of the movements. When at the end of the third movement, the material of the first movement returns, the recapitulation closes the narrative arc of the fast-slow-fast scheme. Where there is a simple, contrasting three-part form, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. When the recapitulation occurs, it closes the narrative arc into a full circle and the recurrence feels instinctual: because the material is what you heard at the beginning, you know this must be the end. This intuition speaks to the very form of memory and consciousness: that awareness of the mind of its self and of its surroundings, that perception that allows you to recognize yourself in the mirror; to self-reflect. This fascination with cycles, both in form and material throughout the piece, is what I believe makes this “Sonata” so satisfying, what connects it to the traditional body of Sonatas for violin and piano, and at the same time allows Chris to tap into something greater than time or fashion dictates.
This Sonata is neither a homage to tradition, nor an ironic take on some aspect of that tradition, but a paring down of the sonata form to its schematic bones. In some ways, it is also a flattening out, of melodic drama into perpetual motion and of two instruments into one meta-instrument combination. Chris takes the traditional scheme of three to four movements alternating in tempo and transforms it into an archetypal fast-slow-fast structure, with recapitulation, thereby creating a “Sonata” in an abstracted sense. While abstraction doesn’t necessarily offer the comforts of a familiar face or a catchy melody, it maintains fundamental forms and in this case, reinforces them. Because there’s such an inevitability to the form, much of this piece almost plays itself; the challenge lies in precision of texture, absolute unity with the piano, and the internalization of its perpetual movement forward. Listeners may not take away many new melodies from this piece, but they will be gripped by the (very tonal) harmonies and live through the drama Chris has constructed for the time the music is playing – because he’s created, from the surface of things, a place to inhabit.
I’m incredibly thankful to have been a close witness to the creation of this work, and to have a part in communicating Chris’s original voice and vision.
Violinist Rachel Lee Priday, acclaimed for her beautiful tone, riveting stage presence, and “irresistible panache” (Chicago Tribune). Combining a fierce intelligence with an imaginative curiosity, her wide-ranging repertoire and eclectic programming reflect a deep fascination with literary and cultural narratives. (Visit Rachel’s personal website here.)
Program Notes on Sonata for Violin and Piano
by Christopher Cerrone
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.
The Sonata was commissioned by Rachel Lee Priday and David Kaplan with funds provided by the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University. It is dedicated to Sarah Goldfeather.
Visit Christopher Cerrone’s website here to learn more about his work.