SONATA FOR BASSOON AND PIANO

Thomas-Edison-phonograph-free-image-from-Wikipedia.jpg

Written: 2001
Duration: 15'
Instrumentation: bassoon and piano
Commissioned by the Michigan Music Teachers Association.
PremiereMichigan Music Teacher's Association Annual Convention, October 14, 2001, Dr. Lee Romm (formerly Goodhew), bassoon,Dr. Diane Birr, piano.
World Premiere RecordingSociety of Composers, Inc. (SCI) – Cornucopia (CPS 9725 – SCI CD No. 19)
Special Published EditionSociety of Composers, Inc. (SCI)  Journal of Music. Subscriptions and orders may be placed through European American Music Distributors.
PublisherBill Holab Music

View ScoreBuy Sheet Music | Buy Audio

Program Note

(Short Version for Programs) 

When I first began to plan this sonata for bassoon and piano, I had no idea that I would be inspired by something so overtly programmatic, let alone by an American, historical figure who was alive well before I was born. I knew that the premiere would take place at the Thomas Edison Inn in Port Huron, Michigan, and my curiosity eventually took hold and I started reading up on Thomas Edison’s inventions and his life. I was immediately hooked: many of his experiences and beliefs resonated with me. I could not stop thinking about him or his inventions and they ended up providing a Romantic and technical inspiration for this piece.

The first movement, Edison’s Ears, is inspired by a legendary story about the ear problems Edison suffered from throughout his childhood in Port Huron. According to this tale, when he was 15, a train accident further injured his ears. When he tried to jump on the moving train, the conductor grabbed him by his ears to help pull him up. The young Edison said he felt something snap inside his head, and he soon began to lose much of his hearing. The thought of something “snapping inside his head” made me think how, as morbid as this is, inventing something musical from this story might have humored him. The middle of the movement reaches its peak with a loud, staccato “snapping” chord. The beginning of this movement sounds somewhat mechanical and is the first of three locomotive sections (based on three musical quotes) that progressively increase in tempo. The end of the movement gradually descends in register and dies away, much like a hyper-speed, fast-forward toward his eventual and inevitable hearing loss.

The second movement, Mina’s Tapping, draws its inspiration from a story about Edison’s second wife, Mina Miller. The story goes that they were introduced to each other by his life-long friend Ezra Gilliland: “Their courtship ended when Edison tapped out a proposal for marriage on Mina’s hand. In their many years together the pair communicated via Morse code. When attending meetings or at gatherings with friends, Mina would tap out the discussions in Morse code on her deaf husband’s hand. Despite his long hours away from home, Thomas and Mina were totally devoted to each other and profoundly in love.” In this movement, Edison is represented by long melodic lines; Mina is represented by heartbeat-like, pulsed chords derived from the dots, dashes and spaces of Morse code.

Edison is also responsible for creating a revolutionary business model, the world’s first “invention factory.” The final movement,Invention Factory Eureka, is inspired by this, and the one invention that is said to have been Edison’s only true “Eureka!” invention, the cylinder phonograph. The opening motivic material in this movement is derived from the word “Eureka!” The many bright ‘dings’ throughout the middle of the movement represent the cliché of a light bulb appearing above someone’s head when they have a bright idea. This image ties in nicely to Edison, his inventions and his one “eureka” moment.When I first began

(Long Version) 

to plan this sonata for bassoon and piano, I had no idea that I would be inspired by something so overtly programmatic, let alone by an American, historical figure who was alive well before I was born. I knew that the premiere would take place at the Thomas Edison Inn in Port Huron, Michigan, and my curiosity eventually took hold and I started reading up on Thomas Edison’s inventions and his life. I was immediately hooked: many of his experiences and beliefs resonated with me and I could not stop thinking about him or his inventions.

Most grade school students in the United States learn about Edison and his inventions early on, but there are certain details that I do not remember history books mentioning. The more folklore-like stories I found floating around the Internet (an invention, by the way that I think Edison would have greatly appreciated) proved most fascinating. In general, Edison’s life and inventions ended up providing a Romantic and technical inspiration for this piece.

Thomas Alva Edison, age 14, one year before his ear accident

Thomas Alva Edison, age 14, one year before his ear accident

The first movement, Edison’s Ears, is inspired by a legendary story about the ear problems Edison suffered from throughout his childhood in Port Huron. According to this tale, when he was 15, a train accident further injured his ears. When he tried to jump on the moving train, the conductor grabbed him by his ears to help pull him up. The young Edison said he felt something snap inside his head, and he soon began to lose much of his hearing. Although his deafness could have been cured by an operation, he refused it, proclaiming that being deaf helped him concentrate. Later in life, he said that deafness probably drove him to his voracious appetite for reading. The thought of something “snapping inside his head” made me think how, as morbid as this is, inventing something musical from this story might have humored him. The middle of the movement reaches its peak with a loud, staccato “snapping” chord. The beginning of this movement sounds somewhat mechanical and is the first of three locomotive sections (based on three musical quotes) that progressively increase in tempo. The end of the movement gradually descends in register and dies away, much like a hyper-speed, fast-forward toward his eventual and inevitable hearing loss.

Lately, I had been thinking about my own slight near-sightedness and how I have often said to people that there’s something wonderful about not always seeing the world clearly. Sometimes a little Impressionistic haziness can act as a catalyst that forces you inward, toward a place where a great deal of thinking can be done. In my own small, strange way, I felt a kinship with Edison.

The second movement, Mina’s Tapping, draws its inspiration from a story about Edison’s second wife, Mina Miller. The story goes that they were introduced to each other by his life-long friend Ezra Gilliland:

Portrait of Thomas Alva Edison with his second wife Mina, ca. 1908

Portrait of Thomas Alva Edison with his second wife Mina, ca. 1908

“Their courtship ended when Edison tapped out a proposal for marriage on Mina’s hand. In their many years together the pair communicated via Morse code. When attending meetings or at gatherings with friends, Mina would tap out the discussions in Morse code on her deaf husband’s hand. Despite his long hours away from home, Thomas and Mina were totally devoted to each other and profoundly in love.”

I was touched by this story. It is an unspoken truth that couples often have a symbiotic relationship: each partner helps the other at various times, and together they form a team. I cannot help thinking about how my wife Victoria and me often play off each other. She will help me with something that I need to accomplish when I am very busy, and vice-versa. In this movement, Edison is represented by long melodic lines; Mina is represented by heartbeat-like, pulsed chords derived from the dots, dashes and spaces of Morse code. Edison spent much of his life working as a telegraph operator, and the telegraph played a major role in his coming up with some of his most important inventions.

Morning After Spending Seventy-Two Hours Perfecting Phonograph; West Orange, NJ; June 16, 1888

Morning After Spending Seventy-Two Hours Perfecting Phonograph; West Orange, NJ; June 16, 1888

I find it fascinating and ironic that the one inventor who is probably most responsible for our ability to listen to recorded music went deaf toward the end of his life. This reminds me so much of Beethoven and his eventual hearing loss that a subtle, melodic residue ofBeethoven’s Sonata No. 14, Op. 27, No. 2 ends up being embedded toward the end of the second movement.

Edison is also responsible for creating a revolutionary business model, the world’s first “invention factory.” He and his partners invented, built and shipped products—all in the same complex. The final movement, Invention Factory Eureka, is inspired by this, and the one invention that is said to have been Edison’s only true “Eureka!” invention, the cylinder phonograph. He is most well known for inventing the light bulb, but that deliberate invention had thousands of trials and errors compared to his stumbling upon the invention of the cylinder phonograph. The opening motivic material in this movement is derived from the word “Eureka!” The many bright ‘dings’ throughout the middle of the movement represent the cliché of a light bulb appearing above someone’s head when they have a bright idea. This image ties in nicely to Edison, his inventions and his one “eureka” moment.

All three movements relate to each other in many ways: technically, programmatically and through the use of subtle quotes. Aspects of Edison’s life that involve sound tie them together, i.e. his ears, his wife tapping his hand and the phonograph. Although these programmatic ideas are represented in an abstract manner, they were important to me in constructing this work.

All images on this page are taken from the Edison National Historic Site.

Review of the New York City Merkin Hall premiere with the American Modern Ensemble... Charles McCracken and [Blair] McMillen offered a virtuosic reading of Paterson’s impressive Sonata for Bassoon and Piano, a polystylistic piece that starts with a neoclassical nod to Stravinsky, ends with a postmodern evocation of Rachmaninoff, and is filled with dizzying runs that traverse the bassoon’s entire compass. Paterson captures the instrument’s buffo characteristics but also makes it clear that, especially in the hands of a player like McCracken, this is an instrument to be taken seriously.
— Christian B. Carey, Musical America
I love the piece! Congrats!!
— Michael Daugherty, Composer, Winner of the Stoeger Prize from Lincoln Center, Composer-in-Residence with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra
This is a piece that engages the performers and audience from the first note to the last and reveals the composer’s skillfulness as well as a puckish sense of humor.
— David Hall, Bassoonist, Syracuse Symphony Orchestra