The composer’s preface to the score is worth reproducing here in its entirety (my translation):
A sonata in a state of jazz, like someone in a state of inebriation, hysteria, infatuation or inspiration, is not in a normal state. The resulting shock, the consequences, palpitations, excessive enthusiasm and drunkenness of the soul, force it to operate within a cubist logic, which only appears to be lucid when placed in the context of a certain kind of madness.
I have subjected a classically constructed composition to what I would call ‘contamination by jazz’. Four personalities, indigenous to four specific locales—Buenos Aires, New York, New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro—are united by a common language which harks back to 1925 or thereabouts, but whose writing is inspired by the jazz of the 1950s; the Tango, the Charleston, the Blues and the Samba all unquestionably have their own individual personalities, but more significantly they all have specific characteristics which both differentiate and identify them organically, beyond concerns of rhythm or style.
The Tango, usually played by a small group including piano, accordion, drums and violin, is written in four beats to the bar. The intentionally mechanistic repetitiveness and implacability of its pulsating chords give the Tango a somewhat fatalistic character. As if seeking to avoid some kind of eventual imprisonment, the melody charts its own way, as if its existence hinged on the freedom of its own style. The juxtaposition of these two contradictory elements creates a poignant feeling. The steps of the Tango force two bodies entwined and absorbed in one another to bend, bow, break, twist and flip to the sound of a single particular note, word or harmony. The result is never very far from melodrama, but it still remains dramatic.
From this formula, I have retained two elements as basic material: pathos, and a certain declamatory style. The fact that this movement is intentionally written in three-quarter time erases the dominating rhythm. However, if we were to split the measures into groups of four, we would naturally recognize the inexorable pulse of a heart beating in common time; thus this slowing-down effect creates an unreal kind of distant memory, sentimental but temporally frozen.
The Charleston, on the other hand, is a dance which is essentially dependent upon the geometry of its rhythm. Here, melodies and harmonies are made to function more as background, becoming inconsequential. The Charleston is danced individually, both participants being apart from one another. Its syncopations are characteristically mechanistic and seem to evoke, both visually and aurally, the accelerated appearance and the characteristic abruptness of silent films from the same era. There is still room for elegance, but what predominates is thirst for fun and appetite for laughter.
The Blues is above all a cry of solitude, and sometimes a confession of loneliness. A voice, a saxophone, a trumpet or a solo clarinet, attempts to express this while trying to be heard beyond an enclosed space. An aura of melancholy is created by the vague quality of the rhythmic contour, and also by underlying harmonies which, though blurred and troubled, are sophisticated by their very nature. And the melody is like the snake that follows a path as it goes to die in the desert. The Blues is danced by two people, without strict rhythmic precision, but still with a sense of continuity. The dancers glide, hesitate, teeter, falter, freeze and begin again, as if they were nearing a final separation. The mood is one of infinite melancholy, and the tonal color is that of the night.
With the Samba the tropical sun bursts forth. A mixture of paroxystic rhythms and luxurious harmonies give the music a constant light-headed sensuality. The tunes, in tandem with the harmonic climate, evoke, recount, claim or condemn the memory of a recent and distant past—a lost loved one or an exotic beach, real or imagined. This feeling has a specific name in Brazil—saudade. More physical than ‘nostalgia’, and more ambiguous than Sehnsucht (the search for something once seen, in German) the word has no direct English equivalent, the saudade being a tribal state of mind, whose verbal, tangible and aural concept remains enigmatic, even when expressed through ritual. Thus it retains its mysterious and attractive qualities because it can only be felt while in a hypnotic state.
Finally, having placed so much stress on the moods of intoxication, contamination, drunkenness, paroxysm, hysteria, palpitation and madness which fuel this work, I find myself in a state of urgent obligation to swear solemnly that I have written this sonata in a state of indisputable sobriety!
from notes by Marc-André Hamelin © 2008