String Quartet as a Weapon

Aizuri QuartetBlueprinting (New Amsterdam, 2018)

aizuri-blueThis one got a lot of superlatives after it was released, and it’s easy to see why. Each piece on Blueprinting was written for the Aizuri Quartet and developed collaboratively between musicians and composer, so the album is well crafted to put forth an Aizuri personality of verve, electricity, and casual attitude. They exhibit the elegance and precision you’d want from a group calling itself a String Quartet, but they feel like a rock band.

The highlight is “Carrot Revolution” by Gabriella Smith, which opens with the sounds of a manic clockwork: chugging, grinding scrapes and stabbing glissandos, like darts of lightning, all manufactured organically with strings and bow. The piece gets melodically sublime but builds tension with rubbery tone waves and a lively pulse, and one sublime moment where chaotic mad scraping halts in unison and shifts into a downright pretty passage. It’s not just the composition; it’s the screaming energy that the players put into it. They even stick the landing (watch cellist Karen Ouzounian in the final seconds):

“LIFT,” by Paul Wiancko, is built around robust furrows of melody, with touches like bow bouncing and offbeat glissandos showing up in the slow second movement. The three-movement piece splits Part III into three further segments: a “Glacial” set of heavy chords, a “Maniacal” phase inspired by a springy square dance, and the brightly dramatic “Lift.”

The title track has the feel of “normal” classical music, being based on the harmonic skeleton of Beethoven’s sixth string quartet (Op. 18, No. 6), but is sprinkled with pranksterisms. Violist Ayane Kozasa gets to play melodica on “RIPEFG,” a piece stuffed with jittery virtuosity. And composer Lembit Beecher adds sound sculptures to “Sophia’s Wide Awake Dreams,” a dreamy piece taken from a chamber opera about a 9-year-old girl, her music box, and her imagination.

Schoenberg and an Art Journey

schoenberg06-cut

Intrigued by a review in BBC Music magazine, I gave this album a try: Schoenberg’s String Quartets Nos. 2 and 4, by the Gringolts Quartet (Bis, 2017).

The quartets were written 30 years apart and document different phases in Schoenberg’s 12-tone composing. The Art Music Lounge blog provides a good review with historical context.

Both BBC Music and Art Music Lounge describe the Second quartet as more accessible than the Fourth. But to me, it’s the opposite. That’s partly because the Second quartet includes two movements with a soprano — in this case, Malin Hartelius — singing lines of poetry by Stefan George. I’ve yet to develop a good ear for classical art-singing; to me, it sounds wandering and aimless. By contrast, the jumpy twelve-tone lines of the Fourth quartet sound fun and even catchy — even though an ordinary listener might call them “aimless” too. It’s probably the result of all the post-Schoenberg modern jazz and improv I’ve listened to.

So my mind wandered during the Second, and I started getting curious about that album cover art. Where did it come from?

schoenberg-2-4I could have made a good guess if I’d thought about it. In fact, as I discovered in a web search, this piece has been used as cover art a few different times — such as the album Signs, Games & Messages: Works for Solo Violin by Bartók and Kurtág (Resonus, 2016) by violinist Simon Smith.

It’s also on the cover of a book: Poetics in a New Key — essays by, and interviews with, poet Marjorie Perloff.

It’s hard for me to resist a connection like this, so later, I got curious about Kurtág’s Signs and started listening to samples of Simon’s interpretation. I didn’t recognize the music, but after a while, I began to remember I already owned something else of Kurtág’s. I riffled through my digital collection and found Kim Kashkashian’s viola version of Signs.

That’s when I remembered. I don’t like Signs.

Several listens to Kashkashian’s version left me cold — which I hate to say, because I’m a fan of hers, and because Kurtág is still living and, charmingly, records and performs piano duets with his wife. How can you not love that?

Still, Signs doesn’t click with me. It’s a set of miniatures — an evolving set that Kurtág is still adding to, so recordings vary depending on which handful of pieces the soloist picks. That aspect is intriguing. But the miniatures themselves feel like incomplete doodles. I’m not able to channel them together into a “story.” Maybe it’s just that Kurtág and I just aren’t on the same wavelength.

My dislike of Signs matters to me, though.

In a 2009 essay for The Guardian, Christopher Fox makes an interesting point about Schoenberg’s legacy. The Second string quartet was powered by Schoenberg’s emotional state, as his marriage was falling apart. That doesn’t mean every geometric arrangement of 12 tones is going to produce something great, as Fox writes:

The subsequent institutionalisation of the techniques he developed in those decisive months has produced hour upon hour of greyness … Atonal harmony and fragmented melody are still powerful expressive tools, as film composers demonstrate whenever their directors need a musical equivalent for psychological distress, but as the habitual texture of contemporary classical music their routine use has stripped them of meaning.

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Gringolts Quartet.

Even though he has a point, I can honestly say I enjoy some of those gray expanses. For example, I went to explore Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3, just because it isn’t on the Gringolts album. Art Music Lounge describes the Fourth quartet as “much more accessible than his Third Quartet, at least trying to follow a cohesive melodic line much of the time” — so I couldn’t resist diving into the potential incohesion of the Third quartet.

But you know what? I liked it. It’s engaging — bouncy and rhythmic, with small spurts of repetition to help ground the listener and create a sense of progression. And I’m confident that this isn’t just me being pretentious, because — as with Signs — I’ve discovered that it’s possible for me to not like modern music.

(What about the First quartet, you ask? Apparently it’s tonal — in D major. Eh, maybe some other time.)

Oh, as for that minimalist, curvy-pointy cover art … it’s by Wassily Kandinsky. Yeah, I shoulda known.

Kandinsky is credited in the album’s liner notes, which I own in digital form but didn’t think to consult until later. There’s even a connection to Schoenberg:

“In January 1911 in Munich, Kandinsky attended a concert with music by Schoenberg, including String Quartet No. 2. Much taken by the experience, he wrote to the composer later the same month: ‘You have realized in your work that which I, admittedly in imprecise form, have so long sought from music. The self-sufficient following of its own path, the independent life of individual voices in your compositions, is exactly what I seek to find in painterly form.”

Feldman & Me

I’ve been listening to Morton Feldman’s second string quartet one movement at a time.

It’s similar to the strategy I undertook with Einstein on the Beach. The String Quartet (II) is nearly five hours long, and even with that kind of time on my hands, my media-saturated brain probably couldn’t take that much stillness in one dose.

feldman-2One difference, though. I listened to Einstein in order. I’m sampling the String Quartet in shuffle mode, absorbing one of the 13 movements per sitting. It’s helping me discern the “personality” of each movement. Any one of them could be described as a light, subtle pulse, but of course there are differences — the ocean-waves patience of “XII”; the slow, neon dissonance of “IX”; the irregular rhythms of “X” and its oddball ending.

Here’s a characteristic passage: the pastoral and relatively bright strokes that begin “III”.

You know how a line on a computer screen can be so thin that you can’t quite tell what color it is? I’m getting that effect with the string pulses. At times, they don’t sound like strings at all, but like tiny puffs of horns or woodwinds. That’s especially true during passages when the notes vanish quickly, dissolving into white space. My brain is left wondering what that sound was.

The piece certainly doesn’t sound like a traditional string quartet, but with that horn illusion at work, it doesn’t even sound like a quartet of strings.

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Source: New York Classical Review.

I was pleased to find that each movement does not consist of 20 minutes of the same idea. Each one is a mini-journey unto itself, going through at least two distinct phases — the surprise pizzicato section near the end of “X,” with trilly, swirly violin punctuation, is probably my favorite moment. I also didn’t expect the occasional swirls of darkness interrupting the pervasive cloudy-light mood.

What I don’t have is a feel for the large-scale narrative. Is there a trajectory here, a series of moods you’re meant to be led through? I’m suspecting not. Maybe I don’t know Feldman well enough. Or … maybe I’m doing this exactly the way I should be.

Sharp Attack on Strings

Elliott SharpCut With Occam’s Razor (zOaR, 2013)

Jack Quartet performing "Boreal" at New College of Florida.
Jack Quartet performing “Boreal” at New College of Florida,

As part of Elliott Sharp‘s residency at The Stone in early October, JACK Quartet performed two of his compositions — two companion pieces similiar in strategy, both dynamic and exciting. One of them, “The Boreal,” also happens to lead off Sharp’s latest CD of classical works.

I caught the concert (and a couple others to be mentioned later) during my latest visit to New York.

“The Boreal” was written in 2009, and “Tranzience,” its followup, is a new composition that got its premiere at this show. Both involve alternatives to the string bow — springs, metal bars, ball-bearing chains — mixed with traditional bowing in slashing, cathartic passages.

As with most modern pieces, there were passages of near silence as well. The JACK Quartet impressively stayed precise and focused against The Stone’s Indian-summer heat and the Avenue C street noise.

Both pieces featured stretches of one-note rhythms, played hard and fast, and lots of tapping, plucking, and scraping the strings — which was no surprise, considering how percussive Sharp’s music can be. His guitar work often involves lots of hammer-ons, and some of his homemade instruments are along the lines of the slab, a horizontal bass played with mallets. I like that stuff. My introduction to Sharp’s music was the super-percussive piece, “Larynx,” whose sections are punctuated by solos from four different drummers.

E#'s photo of the concert. (Oh sure, he gets to take pictures.) Source: the zoarmusic Tumblr; click to go there.
E#’s photo of the concert. (Oh sure, he gets to take pictures.) Source: the zOaRmusic Tumblr; click to go there.

“The Boreal” opens with short metal springs scraping rhythms against the strings, small sounds forcefully pressed into being. It produced some great sounds (more about that below), but the springs weren’t particularly nimble. The players were limited to simple rhythms, sometimes accidentally hitting little nursery-rhymey patterns. Later, the piece sent JACK through some traditional bowing but in not-so-traditional motifs: twisty passages at breakneck speed, providing some of the most exciting moments.

“Tranzience” was very much a companion to “The Boreal,” rather than a sequel. The sheet music was on long, vertical pieces of paper, for a striking and artsy visual difference, but that atmosphere and attitude continued from “The Boreal’s” foundation. So did the extended-technique implements — customized metal dowels this time. In addition to tapping the springs, these were used in a guitar-slide manner, curving a tone into a glissando by moving up or down the neck. I found myself wondering how  notated those parts are; does Sharp dictate where the pitch should start and end?

“Tranzience” started with viola and cello hammering out background notes percussively (this really reminded me of Sharp’s slab) with crazed, scattered notes from the violins. This peaked ferociously as the quartet stopped on a dime — one of many pauses during the two pieces that made for particularly exciting moments.

“Tranzience” had the more exciting coda of the two, with the four players slashed frenetically through near-unison melodies near the end.

I enjoyed hearing the two pieces side-by-side, but they’re very similar; it was an awful lot of the same colors spread across 45 minutes. But that didn’t occur to me until near the ending, maybe because I spent most of the concert not knowing what to expect. I don’t think I’d want to hear them together again — but the same can’t be said for other audiences who haven’t experienced them.

(Elliott Sharp’s zOaRmusic Tumblr, which I discovered after writing this entry, has more details about this show.)


From my copy of Cut With Occam's Razor.
Like most zOaR releases, Cut With Occam’s Razor is a limited edition.

“The Boreal” opens Cut With Occam’s Razor slowly — as I suppose it must have in concert — but quickly picks up the pace, first with springs-grinding rhythms and then with one-note unison stabbing patterns. One of the best moments comes midway through the 15-minute piece, when the players form a counterpoint with the metal springs that builds up to a big, buzzy sound with shifting tones.

The next piece, “Oligosono,” gives us a solo piano executing Sharp’s percussive attack. This track was my first exposure to that combination, with Jennifer Lin often two-handedly pounding away at a dissonant chord or even dryly hammering on one note. It produces a nice effect in those low, low registers, where the resonating metal of the strings creates its own coppery overtone.

Add to that some splashes of higher notes and quasi-prepared piano in the form of Lin holding a string down (adding a dull thud to that hammering vocabulary), and you’ve got yourself a piece. “Oligosono” is often repetitious, but it’s full of engaging patter, as in this segment.

The piece culminates in a more colorful type of piano percussion, stacking tones one after the other for an almost flowery effect.

(Sharp writes more about “Oligosono” here.)

“Occam’s Razor” is a string octet commissioned for Sharp’s 60th-birthday marathon at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn. It was recorded in 2011 by the JACK and Sirius string quartets.

It’s a series of shimmering sound blasts that slowly rise and fall in intensity, while keeping all eight instruments involved for a density of sound. Long tones criss-cross in a Grand Central Station bustle, where there’s so much motion going on (passengers flitting across the huge causeway) yet so little change (the crowd as a whole, like a river, remaining in one place while continually moving).

As the pace slows, the long tones of individual players become evident again, and we’re in familiar E# territory, with percussive strikes replaced by long bowing motions. Same idea, different perspective.

After about 15 minutes, “Occam’s Razor” boils down to a quick but satisfying ending — not a fadeout, but more a collective expression of, “Yeah, that’s all we had to say.” I think I favor “The Boreal” or “Tranzience,” but “Occam’s Razor,” while more difficult to take in, is still a really good piece.

Emergency String (X)tet

Rent Romus and Bob Marsh (sax, cello) perform Sunday, Jan. 9 at 7:30, at Musicians’ Union Hall (116 9th St., San Francisco).

The Emergency String (X)tet Meet Rent RomusEmergency Rental (Edgetone, 2010)

Off and on for 15+ years, cellist Bob Marsh has convened what used to be called the Emergency String Quartet, an improvising all-strings band. The results, although based in the same camp as sax-heavy “jazz improv,” come across like experimental classical music. The strings tend to converge into a nervous chatter, with some long bowed notes or sudden trills adding to the “classical” feel.

The transient nature of improv groups (and of impovisation itself) prompted Marsh to recently adopt the (X)tet name, which is not only flexible but pretty darned cool sounding. On Emergency Rental, we get a particularly dense version: three violins, two cellos, bass and bass koto, plus special guest Rent Romus on saxophone.

It would be easy for Romus to play the lead role over the needlepoint of the string sounds, but the group makes this choice only in spots.He grabs the reins for a jazzy vibe on “6th Street” (an ode to the Luggage Store Gallery), pulling the string ensemble into a busy, upbeat fluttering. He also tends towards a soloist’s role on “Something Wonderful,” where he’s a melodic tonic above the Morse code flutterings of the bowed and plucked strings.

But it’s a group effort, not a spotlight. Later, “Something Wonderful” sees the strings work their way into a sour-toned drone of rising tension, a voice Romus eventually joins — a nice example of how like-minded musicians can spontaneously create form. And frequently throughout the album, Romus drops into periods of quiet, short tones, blending into the underbrush.

There’s a patience and maturity to the group’s sound. Rarely do you hear all seven strings going at it at once; contributions are plotted and placed with care.

A good example is “Waiting by the Window,” which opens with some strong violin tones in a sparse setting, very classical. This develops into a creeping phase, with spare violin scratches and an occasional plucked bass note as grounding. Romus eventually breaks the spell like a small bubbling fountain, joined by tiny extended-technique sounds (creaks, clacks, scrapes).

Further reading: See the East Bay Express review of an earlier (X)tet album, Meridians, on the Italian label Setola di Maiale. Here’s a link to that CD’s page.

Photo by Michaelz1 on Flickr. It’s taken from a live show that might have been the source for Emergency Rental.

Other Minds: Kafka Songs

So, I really did make it to the first night of the Other Minds festival. Very nice experience.

Rather than describe the show in sequence, I’m just going to cut to the end: Carla Kihlstedt was terrific, and Lisa Bielawa‘s Kafka Songs is a very interesting and involved piece. It consists of seven segments, each one a violin-and-vocal combination to be performed solo (written with Kilhstedt in mind).

Each song opened with Kihlstedt reciting the short Kafka text. That was good, because it let us catch the mood of the text and mentally encapsulate it, enhancing the mood of the music that followed. It also guaranteed that we knew what the text was; as with most vocal classical works, Kafka Songs stretches syllables into long tones, making it difficult to keep track of sentences or even words.

The piece began life as a single song and gradually expanded into seven movements. That explains why the first two songs seem to be the most athletic. There’s a lot of bow trickery, such as having Kihlstedt draw the bow for one note and pluck a left-hand note on another string (something I think I’ve seen her do in concert, but it’s still a good effect).

Not that things calm down after that opening. “Ghosts,” the fourth song, consists of ukelele-like strumming, if the ukelele were a harsh, forceful instrument. It was hard on the strings; Kihlstedt had to retune before moving on.

It does not look like an easy piece. I don’t know if “counterpoint” is even the right word to describe the diverging vocal and violin paths; they swoop and cross like independent diving birds. And the violin parts show off Kihlstedt’s rich mix of techniques well.

As for the rest of the program: Varied, and challenging in a good way.

Eva-Maria Zimmerman played a short 53-year-old piano piece by 87-year-old Chou Wen-chung (pronounced “soo-wen-sung” by Other Minds Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian). Titled “The Willows Are New,” it made impressive use of the high register, putting those skinny high notes to menacing use, like poisoned darts alongside the dark, bombastic low-register cannons. The piece comes to a quiet ending where the high notes are their usual, quiet selves, but most of it is dark and spiky. (Test my memory: Listen to the piece on Wen-chung’s site.)

A longer Wen-chung piece, Twilight Colors, was performed by a double trio of Left Coast Chamber Ensemble members — three strings and three woodwinds. It was a dynamic piece in three or four movements, full of serene overlapping lines and frequent passages of fun intensity. There were some sublime moments where a gently drawn-out note from one instrument would be handed off to another imperceptibly — bass clarinet into cello, or low flute into low violin.

The concert opened with the 30-minute Streichquartett II by Jürg Frey, performed by Quatuor Bozzini, a Montreal-based string quartet. It’s a minimalist piecewith an engaging premise: All four members play unison whole notes, using the edges of their bows so that the tones are a scratchy whisper. Tones change from one note to the next, creating a series of drifting chords that start mostly sublime, but drift toward more dissonant territory. It’s a bit of an endurance test. But one thing I appreciate about minimalism is the commitment to a structure that, even for quiet pieces, is sometimes daunting in scope.

In addition to this being my first Other Minds festival, it was my first time at the Jewish Community Center. I didn’t know the place was so huge. At least one class was taking place in a remote corner of the first floor. There’s also a cafe that includes wine, beer, ice cream, and, if the hour is early enough, food.

Other Minds 15 continues with shows on March 5 and 6 at 8:00 p.m.  Check out the program.

Other Minds

Time to get psyched about another Other Minds festival — the 15th, and the first that I’ll get to attend.  It runs for three nights, starting tonight, in at the Jewish Community Center at 3200 California, in Pacific Heights (northern SF, near the Presidio).

The festival collects musicians and composers from around the world for performances of new music. It seems scaled down from the more elaborate programs that used to be held downtown at Yerba Buena … but then, it occurs to me that because I’ve never gone, I can’t really back up that statement.

In fact, because I’ve never gone, I can say with equal confidence that this will be the best Other Minds festival ever. Ever!

On the Sequenza21 site, Polly Moller has a good Q&A with Lisa Bielawa, whose “Kafka Songs,”  for violin/vocal will be performed tonight by Carla Kihlstedt. The piece was written for Kihlstedt and has had the seasoning that comes with multiple performances: “Carla has taken these songs with her through so many twists and turns of life, they really do just keep growing and deepening,” Bielawa says.

Bielawa was also featured in an SF Chronicle article yesterday. Nice to see the festival get some big-paper exposure.

There’s what appears to be an outright jazz-improv spot on the Friday night bill.  Saxophonist Kidd Jordan will appear with William Parker (bass) and Warren Smith (percussion).  Jordan has recorded some great ecstatic jazz, including some quartet work with Fred Anderson (sax) by his side — specifically, I’m thinking of the CD Two Days in April (Eremite, 2000).

I became a fan of the Del Sol String Quartet after catching one of their concerts on a whim.  (They’re based here.)  Lively, vibrant interpretations of new classical music. On Friday, they’ll be performing String Quartet No. 2 by Paweł Mykietyn.

Kihlstedt returns in spirit to close out the Saturday evening program: Her composition, “Pandæmonium,” will be debuted by the ROVA Saxophone Quartet.  That just sounds so cool I could burst. (Bonus: According to the ROVA site, the composition is “is a one-of-a-kind piece of tactile art made from individually sewn cloth graphic scores.”)

Sadly, it looks like Thursday is my big chance to catch any of Other Minds 15. I’ll learn a little about composers Jürg Frey and Chou Wen-Chung, and of course I’ll get to experience that Bielawa piece. It should be a really good evening.