New string compositions
Spektral Quartet plays Carter's modern masterpiece and music by Milwaukee composers to close the Unruly Music spring run.
Last fall, Spektral Quartet the played George Crumb’s Black Angels, a contemporary classic, on the UWM Unruly Music series. Last Saturday (April 6), the highly regarded Chicago ensemble returned with another milestone work, Elliot Carter’s Second String Quartet.
The Spektral’s focus on contemporary music has made them an ideal resource for emerging composers in the UW-Milwaukee composition program. Other than Carter’s Second, Saturday’s Unruly Music program at Marcus Center Vogel Hall featured new works by local music students and faculty.
The Spektral Quartet has the appropriate experience, skills and insight to serve contemporary composers. Compositions that call for independent pacing among the players, that push the limits of the range of string instruments or that use non-traditional bowing or other playing styles are within their comfort zone. Plucks, skips, slides, rubs, scratches or drumming on the wooden body of the instruments can’t be matched electronically. Many of the compositions appeared to be studies designed to explore unusual effects. Each piece left a distinct impression as composers explored new techniques, patterns and development strategies.
In Josh Backes’ Waterboy, players seem contribute independetly. Short strokes scattered among the players merged for the listener as the interval between them was reduced. The pace quickened, growing more frantic. Each instrument introduced rapid slides up and down to the extreme ends of their range. But melody emerged from the patterns, especially from the cello, which advanced at a more casual pace. A tender, high-pitched segment by the first violin added interest.
Voices interrupted: “What’s it going to be?” The next steps are indeed unpredictable. The individual strings picked up the pace, dramatic bowing increased volume and momentum. The pressure produced scratching sounds, then ethereal tones. Longer phrases emerged from the cello. A final escalation of tempo passed without tension.
In contrast to the rest, Scott Anthony Miner’s composition – Never Should Have Come Here – blended the players together as a quartet. The tone was contemporary, but the development more familiar. After a simple opening motif, the violins worked through a theme over a pulsating pattern in the cello and viola. Staccato rhythms in the cello evolved into a short march. A wistful sequence passed among the players recalled Ken Burns’ take on civil war melodies. Development involved deconstructing these themes. Over a repetitive riff in the first violin, a tuneful bass line emerged. The players developed themes and supported one another. The well organized, dense collective exploration stood in sharp contract to the individualism expected of players in the other works. Choral developments between viola and cello, the two violins, then all four players followed a gentle pleasant path, ending with a sustained high tone from the first violin. Over a repeated riff in the cello, the viola explored a theme, supported by harmonies from the violins. The melodic pattern climbed harmonically to a satisfactory end.
In the 1977 String Quartet by Jon Welstead, compositional ideas that often began independently then merged as coherent ensemble presentation. Fragments grew progressively longer. Extended pizzicato sections transitioned from individual patterns to themes across the players, in one case rising to a slow boil. Shimmering accompaniment supported more direct motifs in the cello and 1st violin and between the violins in a somewhat more traditional close.
light, simple by Bill Heinrichs opened with coordinated strings exploring unconventional playing techniques together – including brief strokes, slides and edge-of-range pitches. A slower choral section returned to conventional ranges, including a melody in the first violin supported by others. A quickened pace, a bit more separation between the players and a sequence of rapid arpeggios lead to an abrupt end.
A Fire, Under Way by Sebastian Ignacio Valenzuela Rojas explored the soundscape produced by almost entirely nontraditional uses of the bow – scratching, skipping, striking, swiping, rubbing – and the extremes of the range of sound – rapid slides, very high or low atonal tones, pulsing patterns. Barely audible passages captured ethereal moments of beauty within the noise. Scrapes and rubs were nonetheless expressed harmonically. This composition demonstrated perhaps best of all the value of performance by a gifted quartet able to maintain a coherent result despite the technical challenges.
The evening closed with a groundbreaking work by Elliot Carter. The Second String Quartet appears to move in unpredictable ways. It is a dense, complex work. The listening experience is familiar enough, but development paths are not obvious. A work that permits players to proceed along independent paths yet contribute to a coherent whole was revolutionary in 1959.
Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for this composition. He continued to write prolifically, completing 14 new works after age 100. He died last November at age 104. Carter’s body of work has been appreciated by contemporary musicians, but the challenge of his compositions have limited his audience to connoisseurs.
The Second String Quartet requires an understanding of the conceit of the piece. Each player works within unique, circumscribed patterns. These independent “personalities” can be described in simple terms: 1st violin – virtuoso, flashy; 2nd violin – conservative, consistent pace ;cello: aggressive, pressing the momentum; viola: romantic, tuneful. The players carry on a dialog throughout the work and act and react within their roles.
The Spektral Quartet supplied notes that serve as a road map through the music, as though the composer had written a program piece. The narrative describes conversations and squabbles among four personalities. For the opening of Movement III; “Feeling down on their luck and unhappy with their lives, the foursome gives itself over to emotional interchanges, even lamenting together. They draw comparisons between their ailments and their respective situations. They embrace and they sing, like long-lost comrades.” To supplement the written notes, each player described for the audience both their playing parameters in the piece and their psychological profile – down to the car they would likely drive.
The four players each managed their own pace, responses and initiatives. The resulting dialog holds together as a work, particularly when the listener incorporates the narrative into the listening process.