With a new album released on 17 May, composer Sophia Jani reflects on writing works for violinist Teresa Allgaier, as well as taking inspiration from idiomatic violin techniques


Teresa Allgaier and Sophia Jani © Tondo Bardehle

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When I listen to music for solo violin, I hear the noblest form of solitude. I hear a monologue with thoughts as clear as a mountain stream, elevated above the everyday, completely in harmony with itself.  

What I find interesting about the violin is that it has remained the same for hundreds of years and evolved relatively little in that time. The great important violin work cycles, such as those by Biber, Bach, Paganini, Ysaÿe or Sciarrino, were not so much a reaction to the development of the instrument itself - unlike the piano, for example - but about what kind of music could be written on it within the players’ capabilities. The repertoire developed more based on the tastes of a certain period and who wrote for whom, rather than motivated by technical advancement. When I got together with violinist Teresa Allgaier to work on music for violin we asked ourselves what our contribution as two women of the 21st century could be in this context.  

We worked on the Six Pieces consistently for about three years. What was unusual about our process was that we worked extremely closely together, even though the roles of player-composer were clearly separated. At first, we met once a week to experiment and record short phrases and sound sketches, which gave me the opportunity to develop my first ideas while hearing the music being made and not just by sitting in front of a sheet of paper. Later in the process of composing, we occasionally retained this approach of working and I would send Teresa the score of a longer passage, who would work on it and send me back a recording. Since we didn’t have a clear deadline, I was able to rework the music until we had every phrase where we wanted it. The result was six different pieces, plus a shorter preceding prelude, to welcome the listener to the world of solo violin music. 

The titles of the six pieces are ’Scordatura’, ’Arpeggio’, ’Triads’, ’Capriccio’, ’Grandezza’ and ’Ricochet’. One of the first questions I was asked when I showed this music to friends was whether the underlying concept was to take different violin techniques and musical terms and write a piece about them. The titles suggest that, but except for one piece, they came at the very end of the process.

I approached the composition process very intuitively. My thoughts were indeed musically abstract, in most cases without extra-musical inspiration, but what inspired me a lot was the act of playing the violin itself, just as the movements of a dancer might inspire the music for a ballet. So a title using terms from the world of violin playing ultimately seemed to be most meaningful and even poetic to me, even if the process didn’t originate from them.

 A title using terms from the world of violin playing ultimately seemed to be most meaningful and even poetic to me

For example, when I was writing ’Ricochet’, I was supposed to be at a friend’s place for dinner. I had 20 minutes before I had to leave and thought I would use the time to get an initial idea for this piece. I knew I wanted to work with more idiomatic violin techniques here, but I didn’t have anything specific in mind. I started working and felt so inspired and comfortable in this world of violin music that I was imagining, that I forgot about time and ended up staying home. I finished a first draft of this piece in one sitting. To make it what it is now, however, I needed a few more weeks, and at some point during this refinement process the ricochet came into play. For me, a large part of the piece’s character comes from the beginning and recurring delicate ricochet motif, which is why it became the title in the end.

In the second movement, ’Arpeggio’, the inspiration from the title is a little more direct and it is the only one of the pieces where the music is derived from the underlying technique. I’ve always liked arpeggio moments on the violin, such as in various places in Bach’s D minor Chaconne, Pärt’s Fratres or the solo violin in Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. What all these pieces have in common, however, is that they never get out of a certain progression of a few chords. I wanted to see if it was possible to create a long continuous chord progression in which nothing repeats, so I wrote an eight-minute crescendo based entirely on the arpeggio figure. None of the chord loops are repeated until the piece reaches a turn around at the end and builds up to a big climax. 

The movement most inspired by an extra-musical content is the third movement of the cycle, ’Triads’. It was born out of the peaceful solitude I felt when I was looking out of the window of my studio at the old garden resting in winter, with the golden rays of the low winter sun dancing. I felt a deep sense of calm and peace and wanted to translate this feeling into music. The purity and clear structure of a minor triad seemed to me intuitively to be the best means of expression, which is why it defines the character of this movement 

For the last movement we worked on, Teresa had asked for a loud and energetic virtuoso piece. As my music is normally rather calm and graceful, this was an intriguing challenge for me. To find an entry point, I did a lot of score study and was finally interested in taking the fulminant ending of the Fugato of the first Ysaÿe solo sonata as inspiration for my core motif and developing my piece from the ending of this great canonic work. To stay in the right energy, I went looking for an inspiring word to hang on to during the composition process and came across ‘grandezza’, which eventually became the title. 

As a composer, writing for the solo violin sometimes felt like playing a chess game. At times I found it very tricky to develop a musical idea on this instrument, as it can quickly lead to a dead end in terms of physical possibilities. So when I started with an idea I had to think through where it would lead from the beginning. It is all the more true if you choose a restricted, minimalist musical language, which in my case often means modal harmony and musical ideas based on triads and fifths. The player is incredibly challenged here, because this kind of music only works if it is played with ease and absolutely impeccable intonation.  

As David Lang put it in the liner notes he wrote for the Six Pieces: ’(…) simplicity is the result of hiding all the hard work that went into making it. Sometimes the most complicated thing anyone can do is to try to create something that feels uncomplicated, it takes a lot of effort to make us feel as if something is effortless.’ I think this captures the essence of the Six Pieces very well.

Sophia Jani’s Six Pieces for Solo Violin performed by violinist Teresa Allgaier is out now on Squama Recordings. Watch the new video for ‘Capriccio’ here:

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