two ground-breaking quartets

The Pyxis Quartet has just finished a month-long rehearsal and performance period that involved two of the most challenging pieces for modern string quartets (at least until we do an Elliot Carter or John Zorn cycle, that is) – Georg Friedrich Haas’ Third String Quartet and George Crumb’s Black Angels. The Haas was a reboot for us, with the quartet having performed it for two sets of concerts in prior years (the first time just about five years ago). Black Angels was a partial reboot, with Ron and Greg having performed it before (on an Asian tour as the Third Angle String Quartet), and with Marilyn and I having never laid eyes on it before this performance.

These two works are masterpieces of quartet composition. The Crumb is simply mind-bending. I’ve never had the occasion to take hallucinogenic drugs before, but I’m willing to bet that if I had, and listened to a mix tape of Bartok, Led Zeppelin, and Frank Zappa, this quartet is what would end up swooping around my swollen synapses. Playing the viola, held like a viol, bowing between my left hand and the scroll, and fingering backwards; bowing tuned glasses of water; yelling numbers in several different languages; and creating subsonic, croaking notes with the bow. These are all a part of bringing this sprawling, exotic piece to life. There are some pieces that you perform that are so much of the time in which they were written that they’re like period-piece dramas. I found that to be the case with John Corigliano’s First Symphony. It didn’t take too much away from its power, but it never succeeded in having its mechanics disappear behind its message. The Crumb, however, seems remarkably ‘modern’ to me. Even if I overlook my first (profoundly moving) experience of hearing it played by the Kronos Quartet in the mid-80’s when I was an undergraduate music student, it still seems incredibly imaginative and relevant today in its depiction of the horror and despair of modern warfare mixed with a drug-fueled counter-cultural explosion of the most traditional of musical formations, the string quartet.

Haas’ quartet is astounding through its use of darkness as a component of the musical experience. The piece simply wouldn’t work if it were performed in anything but total darkness. The expansion of the sense of hearing afforded by the lack of visual stimulus, both for the performers and the audience, makes for a heightened experience that is truly unique. In addition, the need for the performers to perform the piece – lasting roughly an hour – from memory is freeing, it allows us to be open to the aleatoric possibilities of the piece, and to luxuriate in its just tuning chords and eerie sound effects.

Both Crumb and Haas took a form that had been explored at length by the greatest composers of the previous two and a half plus centuries and saw what hadn’t been done before, and executed to perfection, relying on performers to complete their vision – in Crumb’s case with a spectacularly detailed and beautifully engraved score, and in Haas’ with a detailed (but sometimes frustratingly vague and contradictory) set of performance instructions.

So, it was very gratifying to read a review by Matthew Neil Andrews at Oregon Arts Watch of our recent performance of the Crumb as part of the Makrokosmos Project V festival marathon last Thursday, which said this:

“… That’s what it felt like last night walking in on the intrepid, inimitable Pyxis String Quartet playing George Crumb’s gnarly, wrathful, uncompromising Black Angels in the lobby of the vanilla-white Vestas building at NW 14th and Everett. Black Angels: “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”—an alarming 1970 musical screed against the war in Vietnam which provided the bit of oyster grit around which Kronos Quartet coagulated—modestly and misleadingly claims to be scored for “electric string quartet” but is in actuality a monstrosity of deconstructed chants and songs and drones and noises and large helpings of frankly gorgeous music, all of it performed, on this rainy night, by an ensemble comprised of Portland’s best string quartet (there, we’ve admitted it) making sounds on a wide variety of instruments, some of which include strings.

A pair of tam-tams (the kind of big, flat, untuned gongs used in most orchestras) hung behind violinist Greg Ewer and cellist Marylin de Oliveira, who both got up every so often to strike them or evoke screeching, warbling harmonics using their bows. Everybody chanted numbers periodically—sinister whisper counting, not cute Einstein on a Beach counting. Maracas periodically stirred, dusty rattlesnakes in a clean lobby full of sleepy New Music Nuts.

Ewer, along with violist Charles Noble and violinist Ron Blessinger, also had wine glasses partly full of water on little tables in front of them, all marked with pitches (“C#,” “B”), like they’re getting ready for dinner at Lou Harrison and Bill Colvig’s house.

Those tuned wine glasses provided the one-day festival’s most enduring, haunting moment—the “God Music” movement—an outrageously beautiful recurring theme on bowed glasses, bizarre chord sequences across which de Oliveira played a melancholy, morbid cello line with a creepy, broken theremin panache. The fine balance and blend and the subtle separations between parts, and the way everyone articulated all this eldritch math music together so precisely, with apparently no need to even look at each other—it all got me thinking about hearing this lot do the same thing with Reichand Glass back when I fell for them in the first place. And it’s got me crazy for next May, when they’ll play Gabriella Smith’s difficult, poppy Carrot Revolution (heard at CMNW two summers back) and Andy Akiho’s quintet for strings and piano, Prospects of a Misplaced Year.

Oh, and the rest of Makrokosmos V was stellar—by turns pensive and contemplative (Takemitsu), outrageous and catchy (Frank), and above all superbly played and well-suited to a rainy June afternoon. We’ll tell you all about it in a couple weeks, after we’ve recovered.”

We worked long and hard on these pieces, and it was truly gratifying to see recognition of that hard work in this thoughtful review. We’re taking a break for summer festivals and vacations, but we’ll be back in the upcoming season, raring to go for season two of 45th Parallel Universe.

learning is hard – and you control how hard it is

I’ve had some learning to do these past few weeks, and more to come. A large part of being a professional musician is having someone come to you and say “play this”. Now, if you’re supposed to hold your viola like a viol, and bow between your left hand and the scroll, then you just have to learn how to do that. The same goes for doing right hand tremolo with thimbles on your fingers and playing a melody with your left hand. Or playing tuned wine glasses with your bow, or a large tam tam with same. As you may have guessed, all of these techniques are featured in George Crumb’s Black Angels for electric string quartet, which I’m performing with the Pyxis Quartet later this month.

A movement from Crumb’s Black Angels quartet. [click to enlarge]

Now suppose that you’re a perfectionist, and you’re also prone to being down on yourself, and you have major league imposter syndrome (raising hand). That makes the learning process doubly difficult. Because I look at a movement of such a piece, and I think, “I should be able to play this, because I am somewhat accomplished”. I then attempt to play the passage, fall flat on my face, and then say “I suck, I am the worst violist in the world, and everyone else can play this perfectly.” I expect to get from zero to 100 instantly, and that is just not the way the world works! So, after an initial (sometimes extended) period of this idiocy, I stop, take things apart, and work methodically to figure out how to do each technique in each passage. Sometimes this is mind-numbingly slow work. When I was working on John Zorn’s The Alchemist (one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever played) I would spend an hour working on just one or two bars, figuring out just how to choreograph fingers and bow, just so I could get through those bars at barely half of the performance tempo.

The place when the panic really sets in is when I haven’t allowed enough time to prepare before the first rehearsal. Sometimes this is just unavoidable – life intervenes in the best laid practice plans more often than not. I try to tell myself that I’ll work to get as much of it under my fingers as I can, and that the others in my ensemble are likely feeling the same way. Sometimes that’s true, and other times I’m the weakest link in a particular rehearsal. One thing that helps me a lot in these sorts of situations is spending at least as much time doing score study and part marking as I do just learning notes. That way, even if I’m only approximating what’s on the page, I know pretty well what I should be doing, what the other voices should be doing, and how I might fit with those voices.

Excerpt from Black Angels. [click to enlarge]

The main point is that only you know how you learn best, and only you can control how you structure and nurture that learning process. Negative self-talk and impatience only serve to short-circuit the process and lead to a downward spiral of shame and recrimination.

45th Parallel happenings – June 2019

June is turning out to be a busy month for the members of the Portland collective 45th Parallel Universe.

Blind Pilot

The Helios Ensemble, the chamber orchestra made up of all the combined ensembles of 45th Parallel, will be backing up Astoria indie band Blind Pilot for two shows at Astoria’s Liberty Theater. The shows are June 14 and 15 (Friday and Saturday) at 7:30 pm. Blind Pilot has previously performed with the Oregon Symphony, and the show should be fantastic! Tickets are going fast, however. Tickets are $35 and available at the Liberty Theater website.

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