contemporary new music string quartet

the string quartet as chameleon

Third Angle String Quartet Plays Philip Glass

This past Thursday and Friday evenings, Third Angle New Music, of which I’m a member, gave the first of its Studio Series concerts at Studio2 in the Zoomtopia Building on SE Belmont. The Studio Series consists of sets of two concerts, in an intimate venue, each concert lasting about an hour. I, personally, love the format for a couple of reasons. First, it’s great to repeat a concert that you put as much work into as this one entailed (more on that in a moment). Second, the flow of a concert without an intermission can be fabulous, especially when the program is tight and coherent, as this one was (kudos to 3A Artistic Director and violinist Ron Blessinger for that).

This set of concerts highlighted the string quartet at the heart of Third Angle. In many ways, the string quartet is the ne plus ultra of chamber music. Since it was essentially invented, then perfected, by Joseph Haydn, the string quartet has attracted some of the most profound and/or innovative music from the greatest composers in history. The list is truly daunting: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Schumann, Brahms, Ravel, Debussy, Berg, Shostakovich, Bartok, Janacek, Ligeti, Crumb, Rorem, Adams, etc, etc. As Ron Blessinger noted in his talk at our presentation at the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics Friday afternoon, the string quartet, unlike virtually any other ensemble, is capable of sounding completely and astoundingly different – in the hands of a capable composer – from one piece to the next. So it was with the three pieces we did this week.

Our first piece was by Illinois composer Kerrith Livengood, entitled Online Communion. It was partially inspired by her reading of a New York Times story on the United Methodist Church pondering offering online communion services to home bound parishioners, as well as the concept of a piece being experienced differently depending upon the context of the listoner.

kerrith livengood - online communion (2014)

It involved the instruments being amplified, and playing synchronized to an electronic soundtrack, coordinated by a click track that we heard through headphones. It employed some quarter-tone and third-tone pitch alterations as well. It’s one of those pieces that I wish I could have heard as an audience member, so concentrated was I on keeping to the click track in some hairy rhythmic passages. Two lucky audience members got to hear an alternate mix of the performance through headphones randomly placed in the seats, which is an interesting idea. Kerrith noted on Friday that the piece is still a work in progress, and I look forward to seeing what its future incarnations bring.

The piece on the concert that involved the largest amount of sheer effort in terms of personal practice time and rehearsals was John Zorn’s 20+ minute work The Alchemist, written in 2011. Up until now, the most difficult work I’d played for string quartet was Bartok’s great and daunting Fourth String Quartet. If the Bartok were Mount Everest, then the Zorn is K2 – not quite as lofty in its heights, but deadlier, and fraught with more perils. No piece has involved me sitting in my practiced studio swearing like a long-haul trucker, longshoreman, and Quentin Tarantino movie character combined. The learning curve on the music was quite extreme, even just in coming to terms with one’s own part, never mind how it will integrate with the whole.


Here is where the problem (if that’s the right word) of being an orchestra musician comes in. We often tend to be slavish to things like rhythm, almost to the detriment of every other element of musicianship – because, in an orchestra, you are part of a larger organism, and the first and most important part of that organism is rhythmic unity. In a piece like the Zorn, rhythm is, of course, very important, but rhythmic structures become more important when seen as musical gestures, rather than part of an unyielding backbone of rhythmic pulse. I feel like we just started to really get a handle on that by Friday night’s performance, which also felt less tentative than Thursday, and more enthusiastically heeded Zorn’s desire for his performers to “bleed all over the stage”. It’s a huge piece, arguably the most difficult (by Zorn’s own admission) in Zorn’s output. It will be nice to take a break and then come back to this piece with fresh hands, eyes, and ears.

The closer on the program was Philip Glass’s Third String Quartet ‘Mishima’. Written in 1985 as part of a score to the Paul Schrader film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, it is a stunningly effective piece of pure minimalism. It couldn’t be further from the frenetic, ADHD, maddeningly complex music of John Zorn.

philip glass 3rd quartet 'mishima' (1985)

But it really is no less complex. For anyone that would say “anyone could write this music”, I’d say, well, why didn’t you write in back in 1980? It is simplistic music, but not simple. What I love about minimalism is the state of mind that it engenders in both the audience and the performers. As a performer, you’re challenged by the homogeneous blend of sound that the quartet requires, and even more by the repeat schemes which require an enormous amount of concentration to get right. There is little to do, but that means that what you do is incredibly important to get as perfectly as you can. There were moments in both performances where the quartet got into a groove, and it was like riding on a standing wave of sound, eternally surfing the endless chord progressions and myriad cross rhythms.

So, there were three pieces – all played by the same four instruments: two violins, a viola, and a cello. But they sounded completely different, and had very different effects upon the performers and audience. That is the genius of the string quartet – the true chameleon of the musical world.


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