Strings Can Lead To Many Things

Upon arriving at Riverside recital hall on Friday, October 11th to hear “The JACK Quartet” perform works featuring University of Iowa Composers, I did not have a preconceived idea of what these compositions might sound like or how they would differ from one another. I anticipated that they would fall under the umbrella of being “contemporary” but was not sure what to expect. It would be an understatement to say that I was pleasantly surprised after experiencing the contrasting compositional approaches over the course of the evening. As composers, they were able to convey a spectrum of “effects” specific to writing for string quartet whether timbral, harmonic in a tonal sense or otherwise.

The instrumentation of a string quartet seems to lend itself to the vision and creation of sections that might be thought of in a similar manner in some cases as the idea of a vignette, easily changing gears and potentially moving from one texture, timbre, harmonic idea or special effect to another in a whimsical manner. This instrumentation gives the sense of allowing a certain privilege to exist that does not demand the same necessity that other instrumentations do. This might include the practicality of sticking to a specific concept in terms of form, texture, length, melody, timbre etc. than what seems to be necessary here. It is inspiring to think about the process they must have undergone in order to “make the most” out of the instrumentation they were working with.

The first piece by Joshua Marquez, written in 2013, is entitled “Cold Star”. The three movements contained in this relatively short piece are entitled “Proto”, describing the creation of a star, “Equilibrium”, describing the point in which a star becomes a “main sequence” star, and “White Dwarf” which is the final stage in the life cycle of most stars.

“Cold Star” begins with chromatic sweeps of an octave or more in all four string parts intermittently. These sweeps are not subject to separated half steps as if they were played on a piano but rather, continuous like a violin, viola, cello or even a trombone or fretless acoustic or electric bass for that matter. The chromatic scale itself becomes a vehicle for a “special effect” of sorts in the context of a string quartet. The theme of “Cold Star” is inspiring in regards to the idea of the conquest of space. The use of a sound reminiscent of the “doppler effect” seemed to serve contrasting functions invoking imagery and historical references. The doppler effect serves as an aural reminder of the conquest of America reminiscent of trains, trucks and planes. It is demonstrative that the conquest of space is and has been a product of the thread through history of advancing technology. It’s no surprise that this type of imagery is still such an integral part of the repertoire based on the goals and visions by which these composers are influenced. The immediate reference that came to mind for me was “Different Trains” by Steve Reich. Many of their main influences are most likely composers who immigrated to this country and collectively developed a specifically “American” concept and sound during the 20th century.

The texture then changed to a symmetric and/or non tertian harmonic cell using an intervallically jagged vertical sonority with notes traded among the quartet introducing an exciting and unexpected rhythm that propelled the piece forward. This motive increased in speed and harmonic rhythm as this section propelled itself towards the end. Maquez uses “volume swells” by way of dynamic attack on sustained chords.

The second piece of the evening was a composition by Justin Comer entitled “Betrayal” written in 2013. It is inspired by the idea of some of the most famous historical “betrayals” over the last two-thousand years in the realm of religion and instances of dictatorship or absolute political power and control, to attempt to put it simply. The objective regarding this theme is to convey the emotions of the betrayed.

“Betrayal” begins with writing involving contrasts in range, harmonic approach and metric modulations creating thematic and rhythmic variety. It provides a generous feeling of forward motion in the midst of not using many repeated sections. The end of the piece partially consists of plucked violins over cello “long tones” and a beautiful melody played by the violist as it slowly disintegrates. Although Justin Comer used certain “special effects” for the strings and didn’t stick to a “tonal” approach during many sections of his piece he seems to have done an extraordinary job in employing tonal and atonal elements as a vehicle for tension and release on small and large scale compositional levels which felt refreshing and inspirational.

Next came String Quartet No. 2 (first movement) by Leonid Iogansen. It began with excitingly frantic passages using chromaticism and symmetrical scales as well as “artificial” harmonics producing extremely high frequencies accompanied by plucked strings in the viola. It had a very driven and almost angry feeling about it. It was very percussive and had a lot of what I have heard referred to in the context of the writing I’ve done for large Jazz ensemble as a “Ka-chunk” effect. This idea is especially recognizable in this piece during the sections where one member of the quartet has an eighth note followed by an eighth note from another member playing a different note, followed by a rest. I felt as though Leonid Iogansen spaced these figures out in a way that created larger rhythmic phrases, almost hemiola-like except not necessarily containing a predictable starting or ending point. This created constant excitement within the challenge of conceptualizing the rhythmic superimposition that was being applied among the quartet. It makes sense that his programmatic conception was that of being caught in the turmoil of a storm.

Towards the end, the strings were pulsating back and forth between a half step or so, and would then momentarily leap up a large interval, less than an octave. It reminded me of an electronic heart monitor in a hospital that you might see in a movie (Hopefully not in real life!) where it’s jagged and unstable with consistent leaps upwards and back down, letting you know that we are on the verge of something serious, whatever it may be!

Leonid Iogansen included many interesting textural contrasts, plus the viola player broke a string about a quarter of the way through the piece which served as a vehicle for humor, the empathetic sense of humility and a chance to get more acquainted with the person sitting next to you!

The next piece is entitled Pisyressin by Alexandros Spyrou (2010) which is an oblation to the tetrad. An oblation is a gift or offering to “God” and a tetrad is a four part structure that comes into existence during the prophase of meiosis and contains two homologous chromosomes which both consist of two “sister” chromatids. What this means scientifically, I’m not sure but I was content in knowing that I did not actually have to do a science project, but instead listen to this beautiful piece! It was enough for me to interpret Spyrou’s title as potentially serving to communicate the idea of a transcendental bridge of sorts between the duality of science and religion that has been a prominent debate, especially over the last few centuries. My interpretation was that his goal was to show that this dualistic way of considering the idea may not be practical and that acknowledging the connection in the way these two ideas mutually reinforce one another may help to bring us closer to a more universal and compassionate view of life on earth. If this is the case, I agree with Spyrou in that it is a cause for celebration.

As I mentioned earlier in Marquez’s “Cold Star”, the portrayal and theme of American conquest is also strong in “Pisyressin. My immediate association was to see it as representing a microcosmic environment whereas “Cold Star” represents a macrocosmic environment. Both pieces allow us to consider the mystery behind the building blocks of the universe. Both pieces programmatically represent an independent material unit that is subject to stages of development inevitably leading to its eventual decline which can be seen as a metaphor for the human experience. This serves to shed light on the idea that we are experiencing a similar cycle to everything that is happening around us and is the “big question” in life which is why I think why many pieces contain programmatic themes such as these.

As I mentioned earlier in Marquez’s “Cold Star”, the portrayal and theme of American conquest is also strong in “Pisyressin. My immediate association was to see it as representing a microcosmic environment whereas “Cold Star” represents a macrocosmic environment. Both pieces allow us to consider the mystery behind the building blocks of the universe. Both pieces programmatically represent an independent material unit that is subject to stages of development inevitably leading to its eventual decline which can be seen as a metaphor for the human experience. This serves to shed light on the idea that we are experiencing a similar cycle to everything that is happening around us and is the “big question” in life which is why I think why many pieces contain programmatic themes such as these.

The beginning contains a “doppler effect” like sound and gives the imagery of a truck going down a rural highway at 5:30am with the violins emulating the effect of birds chirping. This texture later becomes interspersed with chords, “long tones” and relatively consonant sonorities with large intervals and octaves among the quartet. It was clear that there were indications in the score that called for frantic atonal improvisation, which created variety and excitement. These sections were again separated by long tone chords from the two violins and cello, along with plucked viola passages. There were also many instances from one passage to the next which contained contrasting volumes over one or two minute periods of time. In addition, timbral and harmonic contrasts helped to emphasize these changes in mood and intention regarding the composer’s approach to creating forward motion.

The next piece “String Quartet No. 4” (2013), composed by Nima Hamidi, is based on elements from Iranian traditional and new music based on the number four. It contains four quartal chords where second and fourth intervals play an important role in defining the sound.

It starts very frantically, creating the imagery of a herd of animals charging towards the edge of a cliff. I appreciated the challenge taken upon by writing this kind of an intro. It felt refreshing and struck me as a brave and dramatic gesture of sorts for the composer to feel as though he did not have to “build” towards this feeling. I think it succeeded in creating a mood that was immediately climactic that is, if the listener is not opposed to considering it this way which I most certainly was not. It provided from the very start, a strong feeling of excitement, urgency and uncertainty of what might follow.

Next, were partially muted strings with simple long tone melodies on top, almost as if he was working backwards from the climax which I appreciated as being daring and creative.

The atonal approaches used in “String Quartet No. 4” did not seem to be attempting to capture the imagery of nature as in some of the previous pieces. Instead, they were used as a vehicle to create “harmonic” tension combined with timbral and rhythmic effects. Tonal melodies did not seem to be one of the main focuses in the midst of the timbral combinations used. However, there were relatively simple sections containing two note motives which built towards a climax. This technique manifested in a contrasting manner, especially towards the end.

“None Above Me” (2013), written by Jason Palamara is based around the idea of a “cleansing of the conscience” and a new beginning of sorts. It entertains the idea that as human beings, we put certain ideals on a pedestal, but that this behavioral tendency can and has been what causes a great portion of the distrust and conflict in the world. Palamara uses this concept to write “None Above Me” from the inspiration of what remains after the surrendering to his view of this truth, as I interpreted it.

It begins with a one-note rhythmical figure with the violins playing what sounded like 4 octaves up from the cello with the viola somewhere in the middle. They all play different rhythms but it locks in very beautifully in terms of concept and rhythm. This theme returns throughout the piece in varying forms.

The tempo then slows down and contains a beautifully melodic violin melody over a diatonic harmonic context. It then briefly modulates to the relative minor key and the opening one-note theme is restated, differently. This idea repeats and develops throughout the piece. It then slows down and the violins swoop up and down creating a dramatic effect. The opening one-note melody is again restated, this time the same as in the beginning of the piece. It then moves back to the relative minor as before and ends on a whole-tone scale passage creating contrast to the previous diatonicism.

The last piece is entitled “Vrttasu” by Brian Penkrot (2012), and refers to the breath cycle of a human being with contrasting sections being equivalent to an inhale and and exhale.

One of the first things that struck me about “Vrttasu” was the fact that it seemed to contain counterpoint in the context of atonality. It felt fresh, exciting and innovative. Penkrot used special effects such as the violist crunching against the strings vertically using two hands while manipulating the bow horizontally.

There seemed to be a very thin line between tonality and atonality especially towards the end where it sounded like it weaved in and out to create tension and release over the course of short periods of time. It was almost like a V chord repeatedly tonicizing a I chord except timbre and general intervallic dissimilarity played an important role in the process. At one point it sounded like rock ‘n roll music based on the nature of the aggressive minor pentatonic line in the lower register of the cello. This felt to be unexpected, exciting, dramatic and brave. At the end of the piece a similar figure was used but without the extroverted nature of the previous “rock ‘n roll” like passage. It contained an extremely high pitch on top in the violin which fluctuated up and down chromatically in an atonal fashion, leading us to the end of the piece.

Overall, the evening seemed extremely successful from my point of view and I felt grateful to have attended. I left feeling inspired to seek out performances like this one on a more regular basis.

 

To visit the “Jack Quartet” website or program notes from the performance please visit the links below.

http://www.jackquartet.com/

 

http://www.uiowa.edu/~cnm/48.131011.html

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Strings Can Lead To Many Things

  1. Thanks! I’m glad you liked my piece. I like that you got a sense of tension and release, as that was one of my main goals in writing the piece.

  2. The high sustained notes in the first piece sound a little “electronic” for me. It is a little “painful” to listen to, but I still think its very beautiful.

  3. nspinfo1

    Andrew Diruzza’s piece reviewing the October 11th Jack Quartet concert of graduate student works at the University of Iowa School of Music primarily addresses the first of four questions outlined in the blog rubric for the class Post-tonal Analysis. That is, he focuses on the surface of the music and expresses in descriptive prose its aural nature. To a lesser extent this surface analysis provides us with a sense of what makes the individual works more approachable for the listener.

    These are original works, and thus the third question in the rubric, the “cultural, historical, or theoretical contexts to which this music refers” would not appear applicable; but in fact the answer to this question may be the most telling when considering the fact that these are student works. While such works are not woven into the fabric of any specific cultural or historical context, they are inextricably inspired by these contexts. No composer or artist creates in a vacuum, and no work can be separated from its history. The Rite of Spring, while not intended to inspire the near-riots occurring at its premiere, is now forever linked to those events; when we hear the work, the events of 1913 cannot help but come to mind. While it is doubtful that Stravinsky was trying to foment anarchy, the music contributed to the historical context with which it is now forever linked.

    Likewise these student works, as premiered by the Jack Quartet, are the product of years of inspiration, growth, and instruction. One can no more separate these works from their inspirational sources than separate the Rite from the events of 1913.

    To be sure, these students, while all currently studying at the same University, many with the same mentors, have varied backgrounds and took different paths to this juncture in their development. What is fascinating to note is not so much the surface level of each work, but the similarities between these works. Nearly all of the pieces on this program share a number of technical and compositional elements. Included in most of these works can be found, in no particular order, a) minimalist ostinati, often for extended periods, b) extensive use of harmonics, c) sections of rapid and frenetic motion, often with dense harmonic content, d) wide dynamic contrasts e) occasional moments of lyricism – usually no more than one episode in a given work, f) an abundance of slides and portamenti, and g) a noticeable lack of any accompanimental/melodic texture. Clearly these composers, while coming from many different backgrounds, have been inspired by a similar musical and compositional milieu.

    The commonalities of these works are also evident from their programmatic titles. Cold Star, Betrayal, Pisyressin, none above me, and Vrttasu, if not programmatic in musical content, are clearly so in title. The two exceptions are String Quartet No. 2 (Iogansen) and String Quartet No. 4 (Hamidi); still, these two works share many of the same surface features as the remainder of the program.

    Diruzza’s review reveals a set of works that share not only a common time frame, but also a common base of inspiration. No doubt these young composers will develop over time a more personal and unique style. And perhaps in a hundred years the public will remember the riots stirred by premieres at the University of Iowa.

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