Andrew Violette


 

 

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My earliest memory is reaching for a ball which faded into the sun. I never did catch the ball but, boy, I really tried. I don't think a day goes by when I don't remember that moment.
 
Always, when I've started a piece I wanted somehow to attain some sort of perfection--and the great thing is sometimes I get close. But then, once I finish a piece, it's over, it's no longer mine. I lose interest in it and start thinking of the next. I think if I didn't write I'd go crazy.
 
I was born in Brooklyn in the fifties. I went to High School of Music and Art and learned how to screw, drink and read Hesse. High school was my John Cage period. There was one piece I wrote which had twenty radios going at the same time with different performers running around the theatre--old hat now but fun when you're a teenager.
 
I studied with Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter when I went to Juilliard. Sessions was like a father to me. He would almost constantly pack tobacco in his pipe but hardly ever smoked. He treated all his students to dinner once a year at a local pasta place.
 
He would say, "Garlic is sign of civilization." He taught me about the value of the long singing line, the importance of the human voice in music. He trained me to think like a composer. He used simple words in a deep way.
 
Carter I found difficult. He taught me technical things like the importance of clear notation and the integrity of the line but he was never the warm presence Sessions was, probably because he was old money and I wasn't.
 
Otto Luening and I spent a wondrous term doing Fux counterpoint exercises.
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[Photographs by Barbara Nitke Barbara Nitke]

 
I had a Master Class with Pierre Boulez that was so publicly humiliating that it strengthened my resolve for the rest of my life. He didn't like some things I did in a piano piece so I took them out.
                                                                
 
Ten years later I looked at the piece and realized the things I took out were the only truly original things in the piece. That's when I realized the impossibility of making contemporary judgments about music.
 
In Juilliard I read Babbitt's writings, the entire Der Reiher of the Darmstadt group, group theory, number theory, explorations of the golden section. Students go through this phase. They write like their teachers. All the poly-rhythms, metronomic modulations, total serialization, hexachordal inversional combinatoriality--it wasn't very original but it was a necessary phase.
 
I graduated with a Masters and started to knock around NYC as a freelance musician. I invented my own six-note modal system based on the tri-chord and my music started to sound like my own.
 
Other than a few trips to the MacDowell Colony I had almost no contact with other composers but I did have a lot of contact with dancers and artists and wrote music for a few of them--Paul Sanasardo, Battery Dance. I started to produce my own concerts to good reviews.
 
Suddenly, in my thirties I felt called to become a contemplative Benedictine monk. It was not a logical decision but the result of a deep inner need.
 
After a period I left, enriched immeasurably. I had learned various dead languages and Gregorian chant, which the brothers sang seven times as prayer. Chant still permeates my music. Its timeless quality is reflected in my approach to my work.
 
To me writing is a form of prayer and I, as a composer and musician, am an instrument of God on earth. I have no idea if my writing is good or not but I am sure that, in writing, I am serving the Lord.
 

Andrew Violette is an unsung maverick among New York composers. Prone to indulge in lush, Lisztian harmonies, he also makes use of blistering dissonance and trancelike repetition; the resulting cyclone of sound often resembles a minimalist update of Messiaen's mystical keyboard pieces, expect that Violette has a feverish (and at times, fatiguing) voice of his own.
--New Yorker review of Piano Sonata Seven 3/11/02

 
Andrew Violette is an extraordinary composer as well as a first class pianist. His music is breathtakingly bold, completely original. He combines dazzling compositional virtuosity with a full and fiery heart. He is unique. It is a mystery to me that he is not acclaimed as one of America's finest composers.
--David Del Tredici

 
Andrew Violette, a composer and pianist, has assembled a large portfolio of works since the early 1970's, when he was a student of Elliott Carter and Roger Sessions at the Juilliard School, and in recent months he has presented several retrospectives...
 
Mr. Violette is a Romantic with Minimalist leanings, although his language does not easily fit into either category. His Romanticism, in other words, is evident in his penchant for monumental chord blocks and swirling filigree, but there is also a hefty measure of more contemporary dissonance and angularity.
 
He has adopted the Minimalists' techniques of repetition and gradual expansion, but since his music is somewhat spikier and less consonant than typical Minimalism, one doesn't hear it as being of the Minimalist school.
 
That said, there were fleeting allusions to traditional Romantic harmony, and allusions to the music of both Steve Reich and Philip Glass, as well as a section that drew on the rhythms and harmonies of stride piano. Yet this was not simply a compendium of musical styles.
 
Although one might question calling this sprawling work a sonata, Mr. Violette has imposed a structure of sorts on its 23 movements through a series of refrains. There were times when the work was easier to respect than to enjoy fully, but it had its appealing and entertaining stretches as well. It demands a lot of a pianist.
 
Even its lengthy Adagios require considerable muscle. Mr. Violette, a composer-pianist in the tradition of Busoni and Sorabji, had sufficient energy and virtuosity for this marathon.
--New York Times review of Piano Sonata Seven 3/12/02
 

What Scriabin, Busoni and Sorabji began, Andrew Violette is doing his best to continue…
 
Mr. Violette composes hour-long piano sonatas marked by a rather wonderfully anachronistic, over heated Romanticism.
 
He played the first performances of two of these sonatas (each was about 65 minutes, actually), No 3 (1979) and No. 5 (1984).
 
Mr. Violette used to be a Serialist; since 1981 he has worked in a modal style on a "tri-tonal" system of his own. The two sonatas differed in that the earlier, Serial score sounded murkier and more overtly late Romantic; the later one, more tightly organized and more forceful in expression, and especially its 27-minute Adagio.
 
But both shared a similar, extravagant theatricality, which the composer attributes to his extensive work with dance companies. They are interesting scores, if, like his models, open to the charge of self-aggrandizing pretension.
 
Still, Mr. Violette has a gift and a personality, which not all young composer can boast, and he played this overtly virtuosic music with fierce authority.
--New York Times 1985
 

Nothing is normal now. Friday's concert by the Friends and Enemies of New Music -- one of the first concerts to take place in New York City since the events of Tuesday morning -- went on somberly.
 
The audience at CAMI Hall, across the street from Carnegie Hall, was subdued. Those present who had arrived on foot, whether through the streets or across the park, would have passed groups of people gathered in the darkening light with candles: standing outside firehouses, on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum or seated around the Bethesda Fountain.
 
Some of these groups were silent, others were singing patriotic songs, not with gusto as on other occasions, but with quiet fervor, making those songs into prayers. The sight would have been impressive even without the collectively murmured tunes and the candles, for this is a city of people moving through the streets singly and in twos and threes.
 
A cluster, still and composed, is an anomaly. Just by being together, people were saying something new and unusual. Inside the hall it was hard not "hear" candles and prayers in some of the performances.
 
Andrew Violette played his Piano Sonata #1 with hard edged-brilliance and attack, as if shocked into defiance. These were messages from earlier times.
 
Mr. Violette's piece was a youthful composition from more than 20 years ago, perhaps fired by an admiration for the music Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen were writing 30 years before that, but more symmetrically phrased, with its own harmonic character and also with its own daring, not least in landing unashamedly at the very end on a tonal chord.
--New York Times 9/18/02
 

A bold, bravura piece, written very much "for" the piano, its sense of formal drama seems almost visual; the opening allegro, for instance, virtually shows you structures being built up, patiently, then quite impulsively being shattered.
 
The command of rhetoric is easy, knowing, culture-steeped. The minuetto allegretto balances a kind of slyly spiky, creeping motion against open, even bell-evoking regularities : one can say that it works in that contrasting A-B-A way that old-fashioned minuets are supposed to work."
 
--Boston Globe review of Sonata 1 1983

 
What I do not like is your brutalizing the piano. Fortissimo is one thing, brutality is another. All good pianists play fortissimo, but they do not destroy the instrument.
 
--Louise Talma


Andrew Violette
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2003-2005