Postmodern "Neo-romantic minimalism"
By Daniel Barbiero
To say that a composer is a 'minimalist' is almost to conceal as much as to reveal. As an approach to music, minimalism has proven itself expansive enough to cover much ground as well as many sins. Composers as stylistically different as La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, and Morton Feldman have famously built works of substance with minimal means. And while these composers have routinely and even canonically been designated as Minimalists--even if some of them, such as Reich and Glass in the 1980s, have rejected the label as too narrow, inaccurate, or irrelevant to later work--others not directly associated with Minimalism have also created work that best can be described as minimal.
In fact, minimalism (with a small "m") as a musical poetics built on the principle of reductive thematic, harmonic or other sonic material transcends Minimalism as a style. In recent years, for example, composers associated with the Wandelweiser collective, lowercase improvisers and others have helped to define further possibilities for a contemporary music based on a minimalist poetics, however specifically conceived and elaborated in its details. One lesser known composer of recent years who also developed a variety of minimalism entirely his own was the late Andrew Violette.
Violette (1953-2021) was a New York composer whose work encompassed a variety of genres within the larger tradition of Western art music, a tradition in which he was steeped from an early age. At fourteen, he began studies at the High School of Music and Art in New York City, and then continued on to the Juilliard School, where he studied with Elliott Carter, Otto Luening, and Roger Sessions. He composed over 65 works, including eight string quartets (counting String Quartet No. 0), three symphonies, a Mass and a number of vocal and chamber works. Many of the scores to these and other works Violette made freely available online under a Creative Commons license. While many of his earlier compositions have a neoclassical sound, the later compositions are characterized by their combination of Romantic and (small "m") minimalist elements. In fact Violette liked to describe his work as consisting in a "neo-romantically minimalist style"--a good, concise description, to which it could be added that it is a neo-romantic minimalism with a postmodern twist. We can see how this sui generis style played out in two of his more significant later works: the sonata for solo guitar, and "Piano Sonata 7."
"The Sonata for Solo Guitar"
Violette's "Sonata for Guitar" (2007) is an hour-long work that was composed during a four month period between 2006 and 2007 that also saw Violette compose major solo works for cello and violin. Guitarist Dan Lippel edited the work and recorded it in 2012; his realization captures with clarity and precision the intricately woven counterpoint, stubborn rhythmic forward motion and permutative harmonic organization that characterize this difficult and complex piece.
The sonata is divided into six named movements: 'Moderato,' 'Colorfield,' 'Intermezzo,' 'Fuga a 3 voci,'Chaconne' and 'Lullaby.' In its architecture, the sonata recalls Baroque suites for solo instruments; the impression of a suite is reinforced by the heterogeneous nature of the material it contains. Two of the movements directly allude to Baroque forebears: these are the movement based on a chaconne (an old European type of dance-song) and the fugue for three voices. In addition, there is the opening 'Moderato' consisting of a sharply-etched melody set within a rich chord progression; the tremolo-driven moto perpetuo 'Lullaby'; and the harmonically static yet tonally nuanced 'Colorfield.'
As with a Baroque suite, the diversity of Violette's material doesn't equate to incoherence;Violette holds it all together with a consistently applied minimalism appearing on multiple levels throughout the sonata. For example, the melodic material in the 'Lullaby' is based on a kernel consisting of a seven-note theme whose source is a kind of tone row made up of four tritones arranged in alternating half- and whole-steps plus one leap of a minor third. Using this basic core, Violette introduces variations to the row's rhythm and note sequence which, framed within the continuing tremolo, make for a dissonant melody moving in incremental cycles of repetition-through-alteration. Similarly, the fugue movement is based on the minimal thematic material of a three-note motif. It is also on the harmonic level that the sonata embodies Violette's particular brand of minimalism. Violette uses the tritone relationship as a harmonic kernel that recurs throughout the sonata and lends the work as a whole a synthetic unity, even as the basic kernel undergoes shifts of tonal coloring through transpositions and the addition and subtraction of supplementary chord tones. But it is in the 'Colorfield' movement that the elaborate simplicity of Violette's minimalism is most unmistakably set out.
The movement is named for a style of postwar American abstract painting featuring stretches of single colors containing subtle variations in tone--itself a kind of minimalism of the visual arts. The analogy Violette draws between color field painting and his 'Colorfield' movement is an apt one. For the 'Colorfield' movement, Violette took a single harmony as the analogue of a color field painting's foundational color and broke it up into repetitive arpeggios characterized by constantly changing details. These changing details provide subtle shadings of tone comparable to the way a color field painting's ostensibly monolithic colors reveal themselves in fact to contain nuanced variations of tone. The Colorfield movement's shadings can be heard in the five-note, descending motif that serves as the movement's melodic backbone. After setting it out in its primary form, Violette introduces off-beat variations in the melody's stress patterns; elides or interpolates notes; widens and narrows the temporal gaps between notes; rearranges the sequence of notes. Through these alterations Violette is able to take drastically pared-down thematic material and, with the perceptible asymmetries he introduces into it, keep it fresh. In fact, Violette's way of handling the basic melodic material in 'Colorfield'--repeating it in ever-changing, differential configurations--epitomizes his distinctive kind of minimalism.
One perhaps unexpected effect of Violette's transformations of 'Colorfield''s five-note melody is the surprise this minimal material is able to provoke in a listener. The surprise inheres in the way that Violette's method of repetition-through-differentiation serves to defamiliarize what it repeats with every inexact iteration, each of which explicitly or implicitly displaces some element of the source material. "Deconstruction" is a term much over-used (and often inappropriately), but in the case of the 'Colorfield' movement it provides an entirely proper way to think of Violette's method, for his handling of the movement's five-note core amounts to a musical deconstruction comparable to the kind of deconstruction practiced on a literary text. Violette's variations serve to expose the structural fault lines in the melody by opening up the joints between notes and reframing the melody as a series of discontinuities. At the same time, his constant shifting of stresses and accents keeps the melody line's center of gravity off-balance and orders the notes in a highly unstable, continuously changing hierarchy of aural salience. Consequently, we can "read" Violette's melody as consisting in a system of differences--tonal, durational, sequential, accentual--resistant to a stable, unambiguous meaning.
Through Violette's use of inexact iterations, the 'Colorfield' movement manages to be hypnotically repetitive without lapsing into monotony, even given its length and the quasi-Baroque moto perpetuo pulse that predominates throughout most of it. As such, it embodies the essence of Violette's minimalism.
"Piano Sonata 7"
At nearly three hours long, Violette's "Piano Sonata 7" (2001) represents an extreme engagement with the perception of musical time. Like the guitar sonata, the piano sonata is arranged as a suite of parts, in this case twenty-six in all. The internal proportion of the sonata is highly asymmetrical, with the shortest sections lasting less than a minute and the longest running for nearly half an hour. Again like the guitar sonata, the piano sonata comprises a heterogeneous collection of musical types. There are, for example, movements based on Gregorian chant and stride piano; there are tone clusters, and a tonally-grounded dodecaphony as well. This heterogeneity of musical idioms finds a parallel in the way its architecture constructs sequential relationships between individual movements. Violette juxtaposes musical types in ways that on paper seem strange--Adagios largely unlike each other grouped together and with a Dance inserted in between; a movement based on stride piano placed before a dodecaphonic movement. But as can be heard in Violette's recorded performance of the piece, available in its entirety on YouTube, these seeming incongruities vanish in the playing. Each movement picks up in a musically logical way where the preceding one leaves off, giving the piece the feel of a stream of consciousness--a flow of randomly occurring thoughts and images that nevertheless cohere through an associative logic making for an internally consistent kind of sense.
Violette's "neo-romantic minimalism" comes into play throughout the sonata. His neo-romanticism can be heard in the extended harmonies and salient dissonances that pervade the piece, helped along by dramatic shifts in dynamics. His minimalism is apparent from the opening Adagio--the first of three different Adagios to appear, along with their recapitulations, as the sonata's bookends. This movement introduces its basic material in the guise of a motif moving in semi-tones and stabbing, dissonant harmonies. A more classically capital-M "Minimalist" sound can be heard in the Chant movement, which features a driving pulse. And like the guitar sonata, the piano sonata includes a 'Colorfield' movement--two, in fact.
Unlike the guitar sonata's single-harmony 'Colorfield' movement, the two 'Colorfield's in the piano sonata are constructed around complex harmonic movement. The first 'Colorfield' comprises a series of downward-cascading minor chords, while the second 'Colorfield''s harmonic cascades run upward as well as downward. In addition, the second 'Colorfield''s harmonies gradually incorporate all twelve tones, anchored in a slowly descending bass line. Although both piano 'Colorfield's contain harmonies that are multiple and mobile, their effect is similar to the harmonically static guitar 'Colorfield' for, like the guitar sonata's 'Colorfield' movement, both piano 'Colorfield' movements produce a pattern of sound analogous to the lustrously differential hues within a color field painting--albeit through movement and change rather than variation within fixity.
"Piano Sonata 7" is a monumental work that was itself inspired by a monumental work. As Violette relates in the liner note to his recording of the piece, it came about as a result of his seeing sculptor Richard Serra's Torqued Ellipses exhibited at the Dia Center in New York in 1998. The Torqued Ellipses are made up of massive, tall, curving sheets of rolled steel dividing and shaping space into undulating, walled hollows that render ambiguous the relationship between inside and outside, and between the observer, moving along, through and among the sculptures, and the discontinuous spaces surrounding and opening out around him or her. Violette recalled that the experience of walking around the sculptures served to change his perception. And it isn't difficult to draw a connection between the way Serra's monumental, manifold sculptures distort the way depth and distance are experienced, and the way the similarly monumental and manifold piano sonata distorts the way musical duration and proportion, and by extension the ongoing flux of time, are experienced by the listener. This is an effect not only of the work's extreme length, but of its architecture of diverse elements joined by associative linkages. Here the parallel between the sonata and the phenomenon of stream-of-consciousness experience is illuminating. A listener can become lost in the piece the way one can become lost in thought--carried along by the flow of ideas and images, and consequently oblivious to the passage of time. Even listened to in hour-long increments rather than in its entirety, "Piano Sonata 7" can create an effect analogous to turning inward and being absorbed in one's flux of mental life. There are no external markers against which to measure the passage of time, which appears to collapse into an endless duration of internal movement.
A Postmodern "Neo-Romantic Minimalism"
At the beginning of this piece I described Violette's neo-romantic minimalism as postmodern, without any further comment. Here I'd like to explain why I think this is so.
Like many types of music and other arts ordinarily thought of as postmodern, Violette's compositions often recall and reappropriate elements of past styles and materials. Unlike the music of the modernism that dominated the middle of the last century, which saw past forms as obsolete and irrelevant husks to be broken out of, Violette's music instead acknowledges, through allusion and use, that those forms are continuing presences that can be reappropriated and refigured to fit contemporary sensibilities and purposes. Violette's refiguration of past forms and materials is specifically postmodern to the extent that it involves a creative alteration or twisting that opens a new perspective onto them, one that concedes to them a degree of deference that allows them to be recognized as what they originally were, and yet at the same time reworks them sufficiently to give them new meaning and thus to reclaim them as contemporary.
Violette's compositions contain many instances of the postmodern twisting of inherited forms. One good example is the 'Chaconne' movement from the guitar sonata. Violette based the Chaconne on the passacaglia from Benjamin Britten's "Nocturnal," to which Violette directly alludes. Violette's reworking of the passacaglia by way of the guitar sonata's tritone-focused harmonies is interesting in its own right, but the real twisting occurs in the formal structure of the movement. The chaconne was originally a slow, triple-time dance popular during the Baroque era, and it often was included in Baroque suites and other works, the most famous instance being the final movement of J. S. Bach's second partita for solo violin. Violette retains the gravity of the chaconne and gives it a suitably dance-like feeling, but he does this through an elaborate scheme of changing time signatures. While a chaconne traditionally would be in three, Violette uses a 4/4 time signature for much of the guitar sonata's 'Chaconne,' and then breaks up passages in 4/4 with measures of 5/4, 4/4 + 1/8, 3/4, 2/4, 7/4, 5/8 and 7/8. By refiguring the chaconne rhythm in this way, Violette acknowledges the vitality and respects the history of the original form, while at the same time molding it into a shape both startling and intelligible to contemporary ears.
Violette's willingness to appropriate and refigure the formal languages of the past recalls philosopher Gianni Vattimo's idea of the postmodern as a Verwindung--itself an appropriation of a term from Heidegger's late philosophy. For Vattimo, Verwindung entails a stance of coping with the accumulated weight of the Western legacy--metaphysical, historico-cultural, and especially aesthetic--not through an attempted overcoming and leaving behind, but rather through a combination of recollection, recovery and rethinking. It is this stance that makes Verwindung the quintessential postmodern attitude. The concept as Vattimo develops it also carries the sense of a distortion or twisting--perhaps not a way to make the historico-cultural inheritance new, exactly, but to make it other than it was. Violette's work, with its creative distorting or twisting of formal conventions into something familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, seems to represent one way to give the attitude of Verwindung material form within musical practice.
With one significant difference. Whereas Verwindung, in its original context within Heidegger's and later Vattimo's writings, implies a kind of fatalism in the face of a past that cannot be broken away from and whose weight bears crushingly down on the present, Violette's attitude toward the inherited forms of Western art music's past appears, by contrast, to have been one of joyful acceptance and creative sympathy. It's there, audible in the unorthodox yet piquant juxtapositions of movements in the long suites, in the stripped-down melodic themes and variations, in the rich color tones of the harmonies, and even in the way an 18th century dance is memorialized over the course of a serpentine progression of time signatures. If Violette's music represents a variety of postmodernism, it is a postmodernism without regrets or resignation.
Hear Daniel Barbiero's music at his Bandcamp page
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