A Mother's Note and a Single Vote
for violin and piano(2018 (revised 2019))
|Commission||Commissioned by the McKim Fund in the Library of Congress|
|Premiere||November 9, 2018; Coolidge Auditorium, The Library of Congress, Washington DC; Courtney Orlando, violin • John Orfe, piano (members of Alarm Will Sound)|
It was an honor to be commissioned by the Library of Congress. Composing a piece for this venerable institution made me think about American sources, and inspired me to draw on a childhood spent listening to my parents’ and older siblings’ records, absorbing blues, jazz, rock, and country music, as well as the inside the piano work of Cowell and Cage. As we near the centenary of the passage of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote, A Mother’s Note and a Single Vote is also about making one’s voice heard in a noisy world.
Guitar has always been part of my life, whether it was being played by my older brother, my longtime partner, or briefly (and not very well) by myself. In a classic guitaristic move, the violinist shimmies up the A string to meet the pitch of its neighbor, the open E string. These sliding unisons repeat, like the ones I heard on records by guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Lightnin’ Hopkins and so many others. Vibrato warbles and stings, and the minor third rubs against the major third, as if bent by Buddy Guy. Close unisons vibrate, wobbling sharp and flat like a Theremin. Left hand pizzicatos make their percussive pop, like the “ding ding” of the Orange Blossom Special.
The pull of the long strings hidden inside the piano drew me to the great American tradition of the diddley bow, a one-string instrument that was often constructed with a length of baling wire nailed to the side of a house. Echoing its buzz and twang, the pianist bypasses the other 12,000 moving parts of the piano to pluck the string directly. (Popular in the Deep South, the diddley bow was a common “starter instrument” for musicians who later took up the guitar, and was probably derived from one-string instruments from West Africa.) The piano strings are also strummed, scraped, and muted. Two-fisted alternating clusters are slapped rhythmically on the highest range of the keyboard, which turns the piano into an (almost) unpitched percussion instrument. Jazz and stride piano have crept in, and the pianist temporarily sidesteps her role as a supporting duo partner to step out on her own for a raucous solo minute.
I also considered the weighty history of the violin sonata, and an instrumentation that inspires soloistic virtuosity, tempered here with gentle washes of texture. The piece starts and ends with shifting combinations of sustained pitches, tremolos, harmonics, and open strings on the violin - I imagined a series of shifting colors being revealed, like light shifting, reflecting changing hues in a pane of glass at the end of the day.
In order to negotiate the inherent dynamic extremes between these two instruments, I often consigned the piano to its less resonant upper register, those lovable plinky notes, and I used quiet “inside the piano” techniques. Blu-Tac is installed in the far upper reaches of the piano, muting it further. There are still moments when the violin is swept away by the sheer volume of the half ton wonder of wood and iron. But ultimately, the violin persists, and her voice is heard.
About the title: in 1920, after decades of protest and activism, women were finally granted the right to vote when Harry T. Burn, a 23-year old member of the Tennessee General Assembly, cast a single tie breaking vote for the ratification of the 19th amendment. He originally opposed the amendment, until his mother wrote him a letter that said “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.” Burn, a Republican, voted against party lines to dramatically end a historic deadlock, explaining “I appreciated the fact that an opportunity such as seldom comes to a mortal man to free 17 million women from political slavery was mine.” The struggle for equality for all of the disenfranchised is just as relevant as it was almost a century ago. Finishing this piece on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections, these hard won votes are more important than ever. Echoing the name "Alarm Will Sound," for whom the piece was originally written, we must sound the alarm and make our voices heard.
Thanks to Anne McLean, David Plylar, Courtney Orlando, John Orfe, Alarm Will Sound, Alan Pierson, the McKim Fund, and the Library of Congress for bringing this piece to life. Thanks also to Pauline Kim Harris, Vicky Chow, Roulette, Thomas Buckner, and the Interpretations Series for a NYC premiere and the opportunity to work together to further develop A Mother’s Note…
– Annie Gosfield