Friday, July 25, 2003

Andrew Violette: Composer, Pianist, Monk, Leather Top

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #213, July 25, 2003)

Put three CDs in the changer. Dim the lights. Sit back, relax and, as you listen to his Piano Sonata 7, let composer/pianist Andrew Violette musically top you in an amazing three-hour scene.

Violette’s Piano Sonatas 1 & 7 have been recently released as a 3-CD set by St. Paul-based innova Recordings (innova #587, available at

Violette was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. and attended New York’s High School of Music and Art. He studied at The Juilliard School under such composers as Roger Sessions, Elliott Carter, and Pierre Boulez. He became a freelance musician and then a contemplative Benedictine monk. And somewhere along the way, he became a leather top, as the CD’s photography and graphics clearly show.

Today he is “an unsung maverick among New York composers,” according to The New Yorker. He’s also a virtuoso pianist with stunning technical prowess, amazing endurance and a daring performance style which fellow composer Louise Talma described as “brutalizing the piano.”

When a leather top who has also been a monk writes music, what does it sound like? Philip Blackburn, Senior Program Director at the American Composers’ Forum in St. Paul, describes Violette’s music as “part of a ‘New Mysticism’ school of composition. The music is a spiritual experience to play or to hear. Especially considering the scope and length of Sonata 7, one could say it’s almost more like a ritual than a concert piece.” Blackburn also noted that “If you go to hear Andrew perform Piano Sonata 7 in person, you’re basically submitting to his will for 3 hours”—and, like any good BDSM scene, “it’s ultimately a very rewarding experience.”

At the other end of the spectrum, a friend who overheard part of Piano Sonata 7 as I was listening to it asked the question: “Is that supposed to be music or is he tuning the piano?”

I had the chance to get Violette’s response to that criticism (“Yes, it’s supposed to be music. But I don’t understand why tuning the piano can’t be music too”) and to ask him some other questions as well. When I asked how his background as a monk and as a leather top affects the music he composes and performs, he answered that the monastic life, the SM life, and the life of a composer are all grounded in tradition, discipline, and the paradox of both obedience and seduction. Violette also noted that all three aspects of his life “are countercultural. BDSM is definitely a fringe lifestyle. Being an artist in the United States, particularly a composer who is not an academic, is about as fringe as one can get. Being a monk in this secular society is definitely off the wall.”

One criticism of much of the “serious” (as opposed to “popular”) music composed today is that many people don’t find it “accessible” or “approachable” enough. I asked Violette how “mere mortals,” meaning people who don’t have degrees in music composition, can approach his music. He answered, “Mere mortals must approach this music. We either live or die, we either approach new things or we die of despair. Three hours is not too much to listen to. It’s shorter than Die Gotterdammerung. It’s really about the length of The Godfather or the length of a baseball game. On the other hand, everyone is free to not approach the music or any other piece of art.”

I asked Violette if he thought his music required the listener to really pay attention in order to appreciate it. He didn’t seem to think so—in fact, he seemed not to mind the idea of his music being “background” at all: “I see no reason why Piano Sonata 7 can’t accompany a sumptuous dinner. I see no reason why Piano Sonata 7 can’t be the background meditation for a flogging. But of course any art, from popular art to Etruscan vases, merits an extended look.”

When I asked Violette how one responds constructively to unfavorable comments like the “piano tuning” question—or was it better to ignore them?—Violette’s response was, “I think the question is: Are artistic criteria possible? My answer is that they are not possible in one’s time because one is too close to the process. One cannot separate oneself and one’s prejudicial thinking, hidden agendas—whatever—from one’s times.” He continued by saying that he, his friends, critics, musicians and listeners approach the music in different ways, and each finds their own meaning in it.

But, in the end, Violette feels that “All this counts for nothing. No matter how many grants and awards and commissions an artist gets, it counts for nothing. Even the judgment of the artist himself counts for nothing. That’s the danger of not being a maverick. That’s the danger of being in an artistic system—everyone tells you what a good boy you are, but how do they know? I say nobody can know what a piece means—whether a piece has any value. For all I know I could be writing garbage.

“The only reason to write is to serve God. Whether one’s work is of any value after one is dead has no meaning to the true artist. The true artist writes to exist. The true artist writes because he must. If he didn’t write he would go crazy. He must write even if he’s writing garbage or a masterpiece.”

(For more information or to hear excerpts from Piano Sonata 7 visit <>.)

PHOTO: Andrew Violette

PHOTO CREDIT: Barbara Nitke

Calling All Making Porn Cast Members

Cast members of The Making of Making Porn are requested to contact Chris Zaglifa for an invitation to a private screening on Sunday, July 27 at 6 PM.

Making Porn,” says Zaglifa, director and producer, “was a local affair showing Minneapolis’ uninhibited men enjoying themselves in BDSM and kink play.” The world premiere of The Making of Making Porn is scheduled late this summer, at which time the whole leather and kink community will be able to view and enjoy it.

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