• Commissioned by National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Premiered by the Borromeo Quartet, February 21, 2002, Santa Barbara, CA. 2 vln, vla, vc
36’

Publisher: Composer


The most pleasurable thing to do as a composer is to write for friends. And when, as in the case of Nicholas Kitchen, Yee Sun Kim and the Borromeo Quartet, the friends concerned are artists of the highest caliber, with the worthiest and most commendable of musical agendas, this pleasure is further intensified. This quartet, it could be said, was engendered in one of the sacred places of music—in the classroom of Louis Krasner, the aged sage-like chamber music coach (commissioner of the Berg Violin Concerto) of the New England Conservatory 11 years ago. Five years later, plans for the piece came about, stimulated by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, with the final touches to the score completed in the final days of 2001. In one of the most stunning performances I have heard in my life, in 1991 the Borromeo quartet played Beethoven’s Op. 131 at Boston’s Gardner museum. The present quartet’s seven-movement form is very much inspired by this work, although its musical language is totally different. Like Op. 131, its finale brings a previous dreaminess and airiness to a crashing-back-to-earth finish. It could almost be said that the whole rest of the piece prepares this. The first movement is fragmentary, unpredictable, the second a dream, the third a spastic bridge to the fourth, a scherzo-like dance of the most playful and virtuosic character. There is a temporary return to earth and the home key (A) in the brief fifth movement, followed by the real slow movement, in E flat Lydian Mode. The last movement uses the inverse, Phrygian structure to a great degree. There is also a general progression from more chromatic music in the first three movements to more diatonic and modal music in the second part of the quartet, resembling a journey whose destination becomes clear by degrees. We hope this conversation between musicians will be as enjoyable for you to listen to as it was for us to make.


While there are many aspects of String Quartet #2 that have precedents—the “stream-of-consciousness”- type form influenced by Op. 131 of Beethoven, in particular, there are also aspects of the work which, I would dare say, are quite new, at least in the way they are used. This is in the rhythmic language of the work, which, as no piece I have seen before—mixes eastern-European-style additive rhythms (7/8, 7/16’s being mostly prominent) with “American-style” syncopated music in 2/4 or 4/4. Sometimes the two alternate quite rapidly, sometimes an idea drawing from one rhythmic mold is put over the top of another. A picture of this we might make is of two molds, one additive, one straight but highly syncopated.


There are profound reasons why 9/8 (2+2+2+3), 7’s and 5 “limping” rhythms are so basic to Turkish and eastern European folk music but so absent in traditional American music, where syncopation carries the interest. These reasons are perhaps traceable to the structure of language. English is a unique language in the way that it makes accents every few words while squeezing in however-many-unaccented-syllables-as -necessary in between. This is utterly opposed to, say, Turkish, which is remarkable for its evenness of accent, no matter how many syllables are added to the word or thoughts are included before the final verb. Just as Turkish and Hungarian are agglutinating languages, so the musical language identified with these cultures tends to be agglutinating in the musical sense, adding an extra pulse to create these meters. What strikes me is how much more natural it is further east to simply count pulses–the total count of which determines the meter.  How very different is the style in jazz (which more than any other music, in my opinion, expresses the genius of English) which gives a clear, large 4 pattern, above which everything “fits” or squeezes I—just like all those “thrown-away” syllables.


In my current music what is happening is that a new music is being created which is floating somewhere in this post-modernist sea of related-to-everything. As the music I have loved and honored comes from a great variety of rhythmic approaches (and we must certainly mention African music and 20th century music also), and my own learning of rhythm has been unconventional, to say the least, while my music still aims towards the kind of large scale coherence exemplified in classical forms, a new language has emerged which mixes poetry and prose, as were, from phrase to phrase, creating a supple structure whose form is guaranteed not by its metrical but by its gestural balance, suppleness and coherence.


Composition of this work was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts

 

 

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