Sunday, November 16, 2014

Information For 16 Strings

Like the binary system, string quartets can convey seemingly infinite amounts of information using a simple and easily replicable structure. Two recent releases from Brooklyn Rider and the Juilliard String Quartet highlight some of those possibilities.

The Brooklyn Rider Almanac, featuring 13 new compositions commissioned by the group, comes swathed in layers of information before you even get to the music. The inspiration for the collection, the liner notes explain, comes from Der Blaue Rieter Almanach, the compilation of music, art and essays published in 1912 by The Blue Rider, an art collective based in Munich and centering around painter Wassily Kandinsky. Brooklyn Rider's name is an homage to the German artists and the inspiration for their Almanac comes from the way Kandinsky and company allowed different forms of art to inform each other. In fact, the spark for the Munich visionaries was provided by Kandinsky's Impression III, a quite wonderful painting itself a response to a performance of Schoenberg's Second String Quartet in Munich in 1911.

To carry through the idea, Brooklyn Rider asked the mostly young composers (at 63, Bill Frissell is the oldest) to compose a new work based somehow on the work of an artist they admired. Muses include everyone from William Faulkner to Keith Haring and from James Brown to Mierle Lederman Ukeles, the Artist in Residence at the Department of Sanitation. The composers themselves come from all over the map, including two of indie rock's finest drummers, Glenn Kotche and Greg Saunier, a few notable jazz musicians, such as Vijay Iyer, Frissell, and Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus and a few singer-songwriters. All of the writers for the album are people who perform as well as compose, which could be one of the factors that gives the Almanac its extraordinary energy.

Right from the start, with Necessary Henry! by Albanian cellist Rubin Kodheli, we are treated to a surge of churning power from the quartet. With inspiration from composer Henry Threadgill, Koheli works in all sorts of jazzy swoops and glides, along with percussive thwacks before driving the piece to furious conclusion of unison playing. It's a knockout. Maintenance Music follows, by Dana Lyn and inspired by Ukeles, brooding but tense for the first few minutes, then turning to playful skittery interactions between the players. That's the other thing: all of these works are short, with the longest nearing nine minutes and shortest under three, making for a nicely balanced listening experience. In fact, it may be the perfect shuffle play string quartet album. And you don't have to engage with the liner notes to enjoy it, although this is one case where they do make it more fun.

Padma Newsome of The Clogs portrays the Australian desert through the eyes of Aboriginal painter Albert Namatjira in Simpson's Gap, using sonorities that Aaron Copland would have found well suited to the American prairies. It's a broadly tuneful work that hides layers of pain and struggle beneath the surface. The Haring Escape by sax player Daniel Cords (no relation to BR's own Nicholas Cords) is suitably cartoonish in depicting the liberation of Haring's populist drawings from the stuffy environs of private collections and galleries, bringing to mind the ingenious musical engines of Raymond Scott. Aoife O'Donovan, a singer-songwriter, took her inspiration from William Faulkner for Show Me and conjures up song-like passages infused with the melodies of the American South. It's pure charm. 

My first reaction to Dig The Say, Iyer's James Brown homage was "oy," based on the clunky title alone. But damn if he hasn't gone and done it, convincingly translating James Brown's methods to the world of the string quartet. It's simply delightful - and slightly hilarious - to hear cellist Eric Jacobsen expertly play a Bootsy Collins bass line. As Iyer says, Brown's "...groove-based music features complex polyphony, expressive virtuosity, and a ritual-like intensity," all successfully captured here. Dig it. Iyer's description of JB's music could also be used for Greg Saunier's work with Sean Lennon in their improvisatory duo, Mystical Weapons. However, his work here is one of the more mediative pieces on the Almanac. Titled simply Quartet, Parts One & Two and inspired by Christian Wolff, a composer closely associated with John Cage, it features long, plangent lines and such clarity that it's almost as if the quartet was reduced by half. 

Saunier's work segues nicely into Morris Dance (for choreographer Mark Morris) by Iverson, which, as you would expect, features some parodic moments, most notably an oh-so-deep cello cadenza. The piece ends with a little singing, which is a nice touch and sets up the next piece, Exit, by BR's violinist Colin Jacobsen, which features Shara Wordon on vocals. He gets away with two muses, using words from Kandinsky poems while drawing on the "inquisitive nature" of David Byrne. It's a tuneful, circular work with as much singing and clapping as string playing. I've always enjoyed Jacobsen's contributions to BR's repertoire, and Exit, part of a song cycle called Chalk And Soot, is a striking new direction for him.

Five-Legged Cat by Venezuelan performer Gonzalo Grau, is almost as funky as Dig The Say. Besides the merengue rhythms of his homeland, Grau also looks to Chick Corea for "colors, textures and accents," and his work has all those things in spades, as well as being wonderfully entertaining and atmospheric. Christina Courtin, another young singer-songwriter who also plays violin, is quite self-deprecating about Tralala, seemingly almost regretful about choosing Stravinsky as her muse. Not to worry - there's a lot to be said for Tralala's folky playfulness and episodic nature. She works some dance rhythms in as well, which I'm sure old Igor would appreciate. 

Glenn Kotche, who's already having a bang up year, contributes Ping Pong Fumble Thaw. Electronic composer Jens Massel provides the catalyst and the title, with the piece moving quickly through four movements. Not surprisingly, it's a very percussive string ensemble we hear, with plenty of pizzicato and woody sounds. As with many of the Almanac's compositions, you should not restrain any toe-tapping while enjoying Kotche's miniature symphony. 

Finally, we come to Bill Frissell's entry, John Steinbeck, which grew out of the reams of music he composed for a commission from the Monterey Jazz Festival. It eventually became the album Big Sur and was composed there, not far from the settings for many of Steinbeck's stories. If your familiar with Frissel's guitar-scapes on from his own records or on albums for John Zorn's Naked City or many of Hal Willner's productions (check out Marianne Faithfull's Strange Weather), you will find the ambient textures of his brief quartet familiar. It serves as a contemplative coda to all that came before, ending what is certainly Brooklyn Rider's greatest accomplishment so far. Unlike a five-legged cat, they don't put a foot wrong on The Brooklyn Rider Almanac. 

None of the composers on the Brooklyn Rider album (or its members, for that matter) were even born in 1946 when the Juilliard String Quartet was founded. Naturally, it has replaced all of its members since then while maintaining a tradition of deep involvement with the music of its time with a strong focus on American works, while also bringing its own perspective to the classical repertoire. While there are likely several JSQ recordings that can be referred to as landmarks, perhaps none more so than the 1991 release of what was at that time Elliott Carter's complete string quartets, Nos. 1-4.

Well, as It happened, the irrepressible Carter wrote a fifth quartet, publishing it in 1995. Considering that he was productive until his death in 2012, just a few weeks short of his 104th birthday, I'm somewhat surprised it was only one more! Now the JSQ has reissued those four extraordinary performances along with a new recording of String Quartet No. 5. Don't toss out the older release too quickly, however: it included a definitive recording (with Christopher Oldfather on piano) of Carter's not insubstantial Duo for Violin & Piano, which was composed between the 3rd and 4th quartets and has now become somewhat of a digital orphan. In any case, of the first four quartets let me just say that if you've been following the string quartet's journey from Mozart and Haydn through Beethoven, Bartok and Shostakovich, you need to know these works. It may in fact be the only American cycle that can hold its own in that rarified bunch. 

Carter certainly did not let the side down with the 5th, delivering a fragmented and playful 12 movement piece that also displays the absolute limits of counterpoint and how interacting individuals can make up a whole. Still a landmark recording, it's almost as if Mt. Rushmore grew a fifth head - not something that happens every day and well worth celebrating.

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