"Americana" - by Dan Visconti
The following is a guest entry by my good friend and prolific composer, Dan Visconti. The subject matter is his new Sonata, "Americana", commissioned for yours truly by Town Hall Seattle and slated to be premiered on June 10.
I’ve known Joshua for nearly ten years now—since he was a sixteen-year-old!—and while during that time he and I have collaborated on a number of projects as students, we had yet to embark on our first full-fledged collaboration as young professionals. I had just returned from a year in Berlin when Joshua informed me that there might be an opportunity to secure support for an extended work, something around thirty minutes that would premiere the following year. So as I began to imagine the kind of piece I might want to compose for Joshua, I was acutely conscious of my year abroad and my own identity as an American composer.
Returning to my home outside of Washington, D.C. brought with it an influx of American patriotic music, and I felt an urge to respond to this overwhelming sense of American-ness in the form of a cello sonata that explored the simplicity and sense of community that forms the backbone of American popular folksong. The new sonata, titled “Americana”, is just that—a wide-ranging and somewhat scrappy patchwork of folk-styled melodies inspired by images drawn from American culture. As I learned during encounter with my more “theoretical” German colleagues, the sense of being unburdened by tradition—that anything is possible—is a uniquely American trait. The idea of composing music as form of play—as a way of expressing my curiosity about sound and by extension, myself and my own limits—has less to do with continuing or reacting to any particular musical tradition and much more to do with my desire to disassemble and recombine the sound-artifacts of everyday culture in way that is personally satisfying and expressive—almost like the challenge of solving a puzzle.
One of the many puzzles in working with a great performer like Joshua involves freedom: how much should the composer allow? How much should be left up to the performer? In working with Joshua on this piece, I opted to make space for more freedom that in some of my more heavily notated chamber and orchestral works; this was to be a solo piece, after all, and I wanted Joshua to have the space to be a soloist. There are also semi-improvised passages that allow Joshua to rock out within the confines of certain prescribed parameters. There are also new playing techniques that, while clearly defined in the score, require a little ingenuity and experimenting to execute, and thus there is a certain amount of freedom that comes with these as well. Some special playing techniques include a passage where Joshua plays with his bow under the strings, producing wide intervals on his outer two strings that would normally be impossible; the tone is dark, viol-like, and touchingly rustic. Another passage uses ricochet bowing on dead pitches to imitate the cadence of military drums; sometimes one of the most interesting things an instrument can do is to sound like another instrument!
This sonata has truly been a “work in progress” through many stages of revision, but I think that Joshua, Helen, and I are all very excited that the premiere is drawing closer. Commissioning a new work can be a long, multi-step process but securing the commission is just the beginning. Now after a year of writing, revising, and rehearsing I’m looking forward to seeing what began life as “my piece” become “our piece”—something that each of us has natured and invested in.