Notes and Editorial Reviews
Sonata for the Creation of the World
Andrew Violette (org)
COMPOSERS CONCORDANCE 50095 (3 CDs: 191:54)
No, the timing in the headnote is not an error. New York-based composer Andrew Violette (b.1953) has written works of all lengths, but in the last 10 years he has produced a number of exceptionally long scores for various forces. The Seventh Piano Sonata (2001) is just shy of three hours, a sonata for unaccompanied violin is about 1.75 hours, and numerous other works are equally long. A number of
CDs of his music have been released on the Innova label. Despite their exceptional lengths, Violette’s compositions are usually non-repetitive, by which I simply mean that they do not employ Minimalist procedures. It is music with a largely traditional vocabulary, firmly grounded in tonality, often employing familiar formal structures, but constructed on a very grand scale.
Sonata for the Creation of the World
(2009) was recorded by the composer on an excellent 1918 J. W. Steere organ at the Baptist Temple in Brooklyn, New York. Unfortunately, this instrument has since been largely destroyed by fire. Violette is an exceptional pianist (as demonstrated on his numerous recordings of his own piano music), and this recording shows him also to be a very fine organist. The organ writing clearly is meant to take advantage of Violette’s pianist background—incredible finger technique, while employing comparatively simpler pedal parts.
Unlike the Seventh Piano Sonata with its 26 movements, this organ sonata is only in five movements (the final movement is more than 80 minutes long). The movements draw their titles from the subject of the entire work, the Biblical creation story: “Ex Nihilo,” “Light,” “The Days,” “Dance of Joy,” “Thanksgiving.” Violette has a number of works with explicit religious inspiration. He spent time as a Benedictine monk in his 30s, and clearly there is a sense in which composing music for him is a form of spiritual discipline.
Violette is often content to allow ideas to unfold and develop very slowly. For example, the opening movement is 45 minutes long but consists of only nine pages of score. In terms of the enormous length, the obvious comparison is Kaikhosru Sorabji, although Violette’s music is more spacious and less dense. In terms of large-scale organ works on religious subjects and glacial tempos, Messiaen is the most obvious comparison. The sonata’s first movement, with its unresolving chords and tempo marking of “16th note = 40” is the most Messiaen-like music I’ve yet heard from Violette. “Dance of Joy” also bears strong resemblance in its harmony.
I am not in the category of listeners who usually enjoy pieces of exceptional length. I feel that they almost never justify their extreme use of time. Much as I like a great many things about Violette’s music, I have felt that his longest pieces would be just as (if not more) enjoyable to me if they were a half/quarter/eighth of their total length. This new piece is no exception, although I do think it contains some of Violette’s finest writing. Parts of the second movement are exquisite. The extremely long finale also contains very compelling sections, with its many harmonic shifts and inexorable trajectory. Throughout the whole work there is music of radiant beauty and music of great excitement, though there is certainly a lot of slow music. Violette’s unusual choices of organ registration create unexpected colors throughout.
The recorded sound is fine, although there is a good bit of ambient room noise, some street and traffic/siren noise in the quiet moments, and several extremely noticeable edits. This is certainly a noteworthy piece and the largest organ work I know by an American composer. If you are a patient listener, or simply enjoy works of tremendous scope, it will be worth hearing. I am glad to have it in CD format, where I can return to my favorite parts selectively. Violette also has a number of shorter organ works that I believe were recorded at the same time and presumably will appear on a future release.
FANFARE: Carson Cooman
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