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Lou Harrison: Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin (1936)

Other Minds is excited and proud to bring you a near-unheard early composition by legendary American Maverick composer Lou Harrison, Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin (1936), performed by our friend Kate Stenberg. This short piece was written by the precocious composer when he was barely out of high school, still a teenager, but already a year deep into studies under Henry Cowell, studies that occurred during Cowell’s stint in San Quentin State Prison.

The piece was entirely unheard from its composition until it was uncovered by violinist Gary Beswick, who gave the piece its premiere in 1963. It wallowed in the obscurity of juvenilia until composer and Frog Peak Music’s Larry Polansky transcribed the piece from its original manuscript, which found its way to Stenberg.

While we know Harrison for his danceable fusions of Western and Eastern musics, the Sonata finds the composer enthralled with Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method. Not content to merely mimic, Harrison developed a technique of serial manipulation of intervals he termed “interval controls” that he first fully realized in this piece. Maintaining consistent interval relationships throughout each movement of the piece imbues the aggressively dissonant melody with a cohesion not typically found in early 20th Century modernist composition. Echoes of the Harrison yet to come are heard throughout the piece—parallel harmonies, string glissandi, melodic lyricism. Despite the Sonata’s concise length of about seven minutes, it is filled to the brim with compositional ideas and novel approaches.

Stenberg’s realization of this piece is crystalline both in vision and recording quality, captured by Zach Miley at Oakland’s 25th Street Recording Studio. Harrison’s angular melodies are fluid and near-pastoral in Stenberg’s capable hands. The violinist pulls a shocking range of timbres from her instrument, particularly the deeply resonant low end.

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