When faced with the combination of violin and piano to write a duet for I began by exploring the various modes of composition that have been used for this well-established combination. I knew that for this piece I wanted to write something that was more tonal, and so I looked at idiomatic works for this combination that were slightly older. As stylistic models, I wasn’t drawn to the virtuosity of pieces like the Beethoven sonatas, or the style of writing used in works like The Lark Ascending (Vaughan-Williams) and Méditation from Thaïs (Massinet) was too emotionally serene and musically passive for the work I wanted to write. I was drawn instead to the energy and rhythm of the ‘hot’ jazz players such as Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt. I was also drawn to the flamboyant virtuosity of these performances, as well as the playfulness of older virtuosic violin pieces (such as Paganini and Vivaldi). Drawing from this array of styles my aim was to write a piece which grabbed the listener and moved them forward at a rapid pace, and which took a core of material and played around with it in a transparent but engaging manner.
With this in mind I composed a short jazz-style chart. It was 16 bars notated in a conventional melody/chords presentation, able to stand alone as a jazz chart but intended to be the underlying material for the work. It draws on the qualities of the hot-jazz that was its inspiration in its tonality and its rhythmic qualities.
Rather than simply using the chart in a traditional jazz manner (a ‘theme and variations’ on the original chart) I chose to use it as a slowly unfolding structure. For this I took each bar of the original and extended it until the material was exhausted, using simple methods of iteration and variation to build extended strings out of the material in each bar. Consequently each section of the finished work stays in one chord, with sections being marked by a slow progression through the chords of the original. Although the piece was not minimalist the long chains of repeated but varied motifs, coupled with the very slow harmonic movement, gave it some of the qualities of minimalism. I aimed to keep the energy high for as long as I could. In the end I changed the overall feel during the second half of the original chart, giving the piano an extended solo in a more lyrical style in a major key, before the violin re-enters and drags the piece into a partial recapitulation.
I drew many rhythmical ideas from the original style, including walking bass and an off-beat accompaniment pattern, but the most important element in this piece was the syncopation. Although the repeated modules can be seen as a kind of hyper-rhythm, with extended compound beats placed against a simple quadruple pulse, I saw them as a changing layer of syncopation that interacted strongly with the pulse, but would appear unpredictable. This unpredictability was a key aim in the composition of both the violin and the piano parts, but I always had a sense of the underlying pulse. This tension between simple syncopation and complex cross-rhythms gives the relatively simple ingredients for this piece a level of excitement and ambiguity which helps the momentum.
By using the chart in such an extended manner, the piece has a very slow moving harmonic progression, as the ear forgets the role that a chord has in the harmony (due to the apparent moments of stasis, evocative of minimalism) but is reminded at cadence points. Although it is composed using strongly diatonic harmony the slow rate of cadence means that the ear forgets this diatonicism at moments. Keeping the same chord for as long as possible was a difficult harmonic challenge, but the jazz inspired harmonic palette, with interior chromatic movement and ‘added’ notes, gave me a particular set of tools with which to extend the short idea into a longer section, and I was able to compose it simply as it unfolded rather than putting it together from a jigsaw of fragments.
The title, QdHCdF, comes from the acronym for the Quintette du Hot Club de France, the group in which Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt played.
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