For centuries composers have located in the venerable string quartet an ideal setting for their most innovative and inspiring music. The tradition remains vigorous to this day, as two new albums from innova demonstrate. The Argus Quartet proves an excellent conduit for the musical imagination of Juri Seo on Respiri. On Spark, the Friction Quartet gallantly interprets the work of a group of eight artists known as the Common Sense Composers’ Collective.
Argus Quartet – Respiri
On the title track of Respiri, delicate scales and spears of sound thread among densely packed, shifting chords that swell and subside. Juri Seo was specifically inspired by the late composer Jonathan Harvey’s musical evocations of breathing. But from a broader perspective, the piece’s seven and a half minutes are a deep nod to the striving for original forms of beauty that has taken place over the last century-plus, since the Romantic movement gave way to modernism.
Seo’s Suite for Cello looks much further back, to J.S. Bach. But in the last two of its five brief movements it brings us face to face with the timeless still small voice at the instrument’s heart. Cellist Joann Whang’s sensitive readings show a vivid awareness of the tonal and technical continuities embodied in classical string instruments through the centuries. The absence of the violins and viola reveals the cello’s status as the root of the string quartet, climaxing in Whang’s bravura performance of the full-throated finale.
In String Quartet – Infinite Season Seo reaches for yet another continuity, this time a thematic one: depicting the four seasons, or more precisely, the transitions from each to the next. The piece captures, both programmatically and metaphorically, some of the sounds of the seasons. You can hear icemelt and birdsong and buzzing insects in “Winter–Spring,” the stunningly evocative first (and longest) movement. It’s both aesthetically assertive and suffused with Mahler-esque questioning. The hubbub resolves with a peaceful reckoning, as if night has fallen in a pristine forest.
Pure harmonies suggest a quiet sunrise at the start of “Spring–Summer.” But the busy wordless work of nature ensues, the air a-twitter – until the stillness of a hot afternoon arrives. (The insect noises at the end of the movement are exceptionally well done.)
Summer gives way to fall in a frenzy of scales and repeated notes, clanging dissonances, fractured tones, and muddled harmonies. Where many composers use continuous movement for the mere wow factor, Seo has a firm hand on the depths she can comb within it. Then, in the occasionally Copland-esque finale, folksy pizzicato passages suggest a mandolin. Winter’s darkness stealthily approaches not with threats, but with the promise of snowy games and evenings by the hearth.
Altogether the suite is so richly imagined that it’s easy to come up with one’s own imagery for each section. However our climate may change, we presume seasons will still be with us, even if not exactly the ones we’re used to. And they will continue to inspire exceptional art, as they’ve done for Seo.
I should mention that String Quartet – Infinite Season is also easy to enjoy and appreciate without knowing its thematic foundation. I’m glad the album arrived and introduced me to the superb music of Juri Seo.
Friction Quartet, Common Sense Composers’ Collective – Spark
The Friction Quartet’s new album Spark highlights works for string quartet by the Collective’s eight composers. It begins with a movement from Marc Mellits’s String Quartet No. 3 (“Tapas”). “Who says serious music can’t also be fun?” I wrote last year about Mellits’s album Smoke, which included the full Quartet. The movement the Friction Quartet chose to perform here is a rather soothing one. Its lush traditional harmonies and Minimalist influence ease your entry into the album. Immediately following is Dan Becker’s spellbinding “Lockdown,” where evolving staccato beats drive toward a colorful polyrhythmic conclusion.
A bebop theme develops dramatically through the wide-ranging mini-movements of John Halle’s “Sphere(‘s).” The foundation of “Open” by Belinda Reynolds is a minor scale that raises the curtain on what I picture as natural-world vistas jarred by intermittent rhythmic storms. That minor scale can denote both peaceful acceptance and ominous threats – it’s “open” to interpretation.
Descriptive prose instructions calling for specific textures, rather than normal musical notation, are the basis of the five brief movements of Melissa Hui’s “Map of Reality.” This interpretation offers some interesting harmonies, and there are forceful vibrato-heightened gestures in the twelve-tone-esque third movement. But the piece has an overall vagueness that reduces its impact. The musicians display admirable technique throughout, but overall the 15-minute piece ultimately feels like an exercise in cartography rather than a map of a real place.
Ed Harsh’s “Trill” is built (no surprise) on trills, played in opposition to flat, insistent harmonic figures. An animalistic quiet section claws back up to a sequence of organ-like chords, unison blasts, and the tightest trills yet, smoothly fusing the abstract with the dramatically descriptive.
Carolyn Yarnell’s two-part “Monographs” begins with the understated pointillistic pizzicatos of “Hiko” and closes with the gentle rhythms and undulating harmonies of “Angel on a Bridge,” themselves dotted with pizzicato accompaniment. These two connected and complementary movements possess a visionary spark. Traditional harmonies and folksy melodies mingle with modernistic effect in “Angel on a Bridge,” whose pastoral last section, introduced by a pair of koto-like accents, is vividly beautiful.
A burbly recorded dance beat underlies Spark‘s coda, Randall Woolf’s “No Luck, No Happiness.” Elements of folk dance and a vocal chant suggest a multinational pedigree – until the piece dissolves into a broken-up nothingness. It’s a fitting contrast to the lullaby-like Marc Mellits piece at the top of the album.
It’s a lively feedback loop: Composers with all kinds of backgrounds and sensibilities continue to expand the string quartet repertoire, while accomplished ensembles like the Argus and the Friction record (and often commission) these new works. At the same time, quartets all over the world keep playing the great classical and romantic works of centuries past for new generations to appreciate and learn from. Kudos to the innova label for championing these innovative artists.