Monday, July 6, 2009

Mini-Post Mini-Series Part 6: Quartet Mini-Reviews #3

Quartet Mini-Reviews #3
(...or, what I've heard since last week)

During a short trip home to see the family, I had a chance to listen to six more quartets. The two more Myaskovsky quartets and Glass' fifth (second hearing) ranged from good to great.

Here are three others quartets you likely haven't heard (but should), all composed by women in the past 10-35 years:

* Eleanor Hovda - Lemniscates (1988)
Meter and pulse are completely absent. If my memory and ear can be trusted, there are no rapid gestures (except tremolo), no dynamics above piano, and no pitches below the violin's open E in the first seven minutes of the work! These are truly the sounds of another world. Imagine a long-abandoned barn filled with decayed machinery and the assorted projects of a hobbyist inventor - squeaky weather vanes, long metal tubes half-filled with water, and various peculiar objects swaying in the wind. That's about what this sounds like, only it's made by four acoustic string instruments.

Near the end, the cello (Is it the cello? They're all playing so high!) hammers out the only forte passages, followed by an abrupt return to the earlier metallic murmurs. One unusual performance indication among the many employed deserves special attention. The cello (?) saws away on a repeated note while gradually shifting the bow position from sul pont. to sul tasto and back. The isolation of bow placement through steady rhythm, attack, and pitch makes this line jump out as though it were a tuneful melody. I will definitely steal this technique soon.

* Frances Thorne - String Quartet No. 3 (1975)
It is puzzling that pieces built around unique noises, colors, and gestures are somehow more accessible - to this listener, at least - than much traditionally-notated modernist or contemporary atonal music. It's probably unfair to classify Frances Thorne's three movement String Quartet No. 3 as either modernist or atonal, but that's my initial verdict in the context of my recent listening and current captive setting: alone with my thoughts on a familiar, strange, sparsely-populated Minnesota highway.

Before I get too carried away, let me mention that the opening few minutes of Thorne's third movement are simply gorgeous. The initial solo phrases typify this elusive brand of disjunct lyricism that I've been trying for weeks to pin down. This plaintive voice gives way to a cool polyphonic texture in the same vein. As a set of variations, the movement proceeds to other somewhat less satisfying iterations. Even at the return to the earlier subdued texture, the memory of short, erratic punctuations interrupts the moment of repose - in the listener's mind if not on the surface of the music. This work certainly has its highlights, but another listen or two is needed before I can enjoy any deeper appreciation.

* Margaret Brouwer - Crosswinds (1999)
I could be mistaken, but I think I just heard a dominant 7th resolve to tonic at the end of movement two. Sure, the 7th resolved up, but that was blatant tonality! Brouwer's cheerful tunes catch the ear instantly, yet she only lays on a rhythmic accompaniment pattern as long as she needs to establish the folksy reference she's after.

Her work sounds a little like young Americana Copland meets older, "serious modernist" Copland. I'm not sure how well the two would get along, or whether "populist" or "modernist" camps would react well to this work, but it seems to me a great amalgam of both influences. The pentatonic melodies and triadic harmonies give even the wholly uninitiated listener an "in", while originality and willingness to toss in some peculiar notes keeps the student on her or his analytical toes. Definitely give this brief set a listen.

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