Violin Sonata 3 ‘Umwelten’

Dedicated to Amanda Suet Yeng Tse and Marcel Heijnen


The subtitle of this piece is a German word which is somewhat diffcult to translate into a simple English definition. Some translations I have read include: ‘environment’ ‘surroundings’ ‘self-centred world.’ I first encountered the concept of umwelten in the book Immense World by Ed Yong. He describes umwelten as a person or animal’s perception of their surroundings. This takes into account all of their senses, their sense of smell, sight, hearing etc. Since every species has their own umwelten, all species experience life in a different way.

Humans’ experience and perception of going to the park might include enjoying the relaxing atmosphere, observing flowers in bloom, and seeing birds flit from tree to tree. We couldn’t walk through the park and detect the scent of our friend who had passed through the park that morning. It isn’t really important to us to be able to detect this person’s scent. Similarly, we couldn’t discern the difference of one myna bird’s call amongst 50 others. We don’t need to. It simply sounds like birdsong to us.

These things make up the human umwelten. Naturally, there would be variation from human to human. For example, a young person’s hearing range is much wider than that of an elderly person, their sight is more acute. Some people prefer salty flavours while others prefer sweet ones. These differences show how even among one species umwelten isn’t identical.

If we imagine a dog walking through this same park, we could probably guess that this creature’s perception is going to be much different. Scents that are impossible for us to catch are so easy for the dog. The dog’s world is shaped so much from scents. Conversely, a dog isn’t going to spend much time admiring the red blooming roses. When we start to think about how other creatures’ worlds are thought of in their heads, the possibilities are overwhelming.

Animals have played a large part in many of my pieces and this violin sonata is no exception. When the dedicatee and I first met we bonded over our mutual fascination with cats. To compose the sonata I started with a very small musical idea, which can be heard at the opening of the piece. I then set out to look at this small idea from every possible perspective I could imagine and this experiment resulted in the Umwelten Sonata. At first listen it's easy to detect obvious differences in the character of each section. There is a slow and stately opening followed by a fast, aggressive and virtuosic section, then there is an expressive almost folky section and a finale. From a slightly different listening perspective one might notice that every section of the piece shares its musical material with every other section. There are no real breaks between sections, so they all flow together. When we are listening, we are all hearing the same music, but no one person’s perception of this music will be exactly the same. While you are listening, think about the music from different viewpoints: the violinist’s, the person sitting next to you, the composer’s, the violinist’s cat’s.




Solo Violin