My Tennessee Sonata


The Sonata has come full circle: from describing a piece of music that was sounded (i.e. instrumental music, as opposed to "cantata" - which was sung), it came to mean a specific, formal arrangement of musical ideas. Recently, I think it has become acceptable to name any work for a solo instrument and piano "sonata"?

I have long been fascinated with both ideas – to write a multi-movement recital piece for my own instrument, and to see if I could write in actual sonata form. (It seems obvious that this is the dominant and most successful vehicle for musical thought through the last 250 years.)

The final "inspiration" came from my year living in Tennessee. When I left Tennessee in the spring of 2013, I was upset – I felt used and cheated and was worried about finding a new positive direction professionally. I wanted to write something ugly and angry to help flush out my frustration. The angry ideas were slowly taking form, and I realized that while they would work well as therapy for myself, they might not have any great musical value for the world at large...

I saved my sketches and tried to move on. Back to New York City and attempting to find a place in the freelancing world as a "horn for hire".

The second movement was spontaneously improvised that summer – at least the piano part. I played the chord progression in solitude and found it appropriately sad. At that time I realized that my Sonata should reflect the typical grief pattern of anger, sadness, acceptance. For the "acceptance" movement I made some sketches trying to imagine Nashville-style country music for horn and piano.

But returning to the second movement: The chord progression that repeats, yet meanders provided me with absloute freedom for the horn part. It also seemed perfectly meaningless – a great musical depiction of the state of Tennessee: Appearing to be functional, but in reality going nowhere - giving the impression of being steadfast, but actually shifting around without purpose. I wanted the horn part to be fragmented, seemingly not relating to the steady "predictability" of the piano part – like someone trying to fit into a system, but never managing to figure it out. I was trying to avoid a beginning and an end for this movement – no resolution, just aimless wandering. I call the form: "Ambulating Passacaglia".

When the second movement was completed, I performed it a couple of times as a stand-alone work and was happy with both how it felt and the response from listeners – I was getting apprehensive about completing the two other movements, even though I realized that the second movement on its own had a limited message and could perhaps have a stronger impact as part of the original "anger, sadness, acceptance" scheme.

Returning to my sketches for the first movement, I thought that a strict form could justify the angry sounds I had come up with. The repetitions and clear outline of the sonata form would elevate the shrieks and growls to be experienced as "music". I was still scared of SONATA FORM, and after some attempts, I saw that I needed to look to the humble origins of the form. In other words, the developments of the form that Beethoven, Brahms and other masters had brought forth, would not be possible to emulate without more training. I needed to start with Haydn; an economical and clean outline without "exceptions to the rule" or sophisticated manipulation. The starkness this "early" Sonata form brings to the movement pleases me, and for the first time in my life did "sonata form" become an asset and not a liability.

For the third movement I had initially thought of being very sarcastic in my parody of country music. As time passed, I subconsciously realized that acceptance isn't scathing. I had read an essay by David del Tredici a while back about composers accessing their "secret music" – something that flows naturally, but we might be slightly ashamed at the lack of sophistication it shows. That's were I needed to go. I think there are still some references to "Western" and "Contemporary Christian", but I think they are served up without malice, and making for a movement that is fun to play for both performers.

I ended up with a work that is in radically different styles for each movement - maybe so much so that they can not be considered a cohesive whole on purely musical terms? (I wonder if my "artistic fingerprint" creates this cohesion without me being able to see it myself..)

The Tennessee Sonata received its premiere at Stamford Friends of Music, October 2015. Many thanks to Renana Gutman who played the piano part with great virtuosity and total emotional dedication! I have attached the recording, if anyone wants to have a listen.

#KarlKramerJohansen #KarlKramer #Sonata #Tennessee #TennesseeSonata #RenanaGutman #StamfordFriendsofMusic #horn #hornsonata

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©Karl Kramer-Johansen, 2016, photos: A. Karjaka, N. Graham, M. Gámez, K. Kramer