Monday, 22 August 2011

Donald Harris: Sonata 1957– a documentary film by Daniel Beliavsky.

I know that Donald Harris is not a British composer – he is an American. However I include this review for two main reasons.
Firstly, it shows that I do listen to music other than British!
And, secondly, this DVD is a model of how a musical analysis of a work can be done in an interesting and entertaining manner, without dumbing-down and ignoring technical content.

A number of years ago I wrote an ‘impressionistic’ essay [1] about Donald Harris’s (b.1931) Piano Sonata, Op. 1. In this I concentrated on the ‘sitz in leben’ of this work, which was the result of the composer’s sojourn in Paris whilst studying with Nadia Boulanger. It represented the beginnings of a variety of trajectories that were used by the composer over more than half-a-century of musical writing. The Sonata was most definitely a 12-tone serial work, however, the added value was that it had a significant degree of artistry and an obvious inspiration: it was not just a fabrication defined by the manipulation of sets and series.
The pianist, theorist, and musicologist Daniel Beliavsky has taken this Piano Sonata to his heart. Not only has he made a recording of the work but has also produced formal analyses of the piece. In 2011, he made a 50-minute documentary film entitled Sonata (1957).
Daniel Beliavsky has written the following note which is well worth quoting in full:-

During the summer of 2000, just after I graduated from college, I was invited to perform a solo recital at the Festival of the Hamptons on Long Island, NY. The festival’s director, Lukas Foss (1922-2009), prefaced the invitation with the condition that I play a piano sonata by Donald Harris (born 1931), his friend and colleague. I did, and then met Harris immediately following the recital. Although I met Harris in person, I had discovered him first through this music, his first professional composition finished in Paris in 1957. This Sonata is Harris’ first independently composed work, completed after he left Nadia Boulanger’s studio and before he began working with Max Deutsch. In Harris’ own words, he loved every note; he caressed every note, and he felt liberated to compose freely in a style of his own choosing after an unremarkable start with Boulanger.
Since that first performance, I have played the Sonata many times, and have even written analyses detailing the music’s intricate structures. More importantly, I have grown to love the piece. This film was born out of the desire to make intimate and understandable a music whose aesthetic is complex and whose language is atonal. I wished for the film not only to explain what circumstances lead Harris to compose the Sonata, but also to expose an audience to the work’s intellectual vigor and subtle emotional beauty. In effect, I hoped to make clear to an audience why this difficult and intricate music so captivated me. In these ways, the film is also an unfolding composition, one in which its uncommon protagonist, the Sonata itself, is gradually assembled from fragments into a complete, meaningful, and freshly interpreted performance.
There are three things that make this documentary a model of its kind. Firstly, Beliavsky has allowed a number of people to speak about their experiences of this music. Basically composer and performers are encouraged to discuss and debate the music and the background of the Sonata. Perhaps the most exciting part of the discussion is the portrait of the composer that is presented, complete with photographs taken at the time of his student days in Paris. But just as important are the views of Veronica Jochum, a pianist who made the second commercial recording [2] of this work after the late Geneviève Joy’s 1961 recording for the French Radio. Equally interesting are the contributions by Gunther Schuller, who has been a long-time friend and associate of the composer. Added to these views are the considerable insights of Beliavsky himself, who is the work's current champion.

Secondly, during the course of the documentary, Beliavsky gives an analysis of the work, supported by images of the score and musical examples played by himself. However this never sinks into mere cerebral pontification on complex musicological functions. There is a danger that any discussion of a ‘serial’ work will rely heavily on charts, lists and diagrams in order to elucidate the progress of the composition. Although the documentary is quite obviously aimed at musically literate viewers, it never crosses the boundary into sheer pretentiousness. And finally, a complete performance of this work is given at the end of the film. After the discussion and analysis it is necessary to hear the subject of the conversations.

I have not seen many ‘analytical’ films about music, although I have attended a few lectures and seminars. Not a few of these have been over-technical, beside the point and sometimes downright tedious. However, I believe that Daniel Beliavsky gets the balance absolutely right. At the end of the discussion I really wanted to hear the piece rather than switch the DVD player off!

The film is produced by Daniel Beliavsky and directed by Engin Ufuk Kaplan and Alexis Boling and was edited by Bodine Alex Boling. However it is not at present commercially distributed. Anyone interested in viewing this film, or making further inquiries about it is invited to write to the producer directly at his email address:

[2] Veronica Jochum New England Conservatory Recording Series, Volume 7. Includes Robert Schuman’s Piano Sonata No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.11, Quincy Porter’s Piano Sonata and Donald Harris Piano Sonata. Golden Crest NEC-107 (LP only)

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