The twentieth century is the century of the string quartet. While not all great composers of the last century wrote string quartets, the genre became a powerful medium for composers to reveal their deepest emotions and indulge their creativity. The century began with incredibly forward-thinking quartets from Béla Bartók, Maurice Ravel, Ruth Crawford-Seeger and Arnold Schoenberg. These composers set a precedent leading the way for Shostakovich’s dark humor, Johnston’s microtonality, Carter’s rhythmic experiments and Ferneyhough’s controlled chaos.
Even today, composers such as Caroline Shaw, Philip Glass and John Luther Adams keep this forward-looking spirit alive. As a small ensemble with a wide range and uniform tone color, the string quartet is an ideal medium for composers to test new musical ideas and express their voice in an intimate setting.
Of course the string quartet was always an important medium, even from its early days of Haydn and Mozart. I can imagine Hadyn writing his sixty-eight string quartets and keeping himself entertained with syncopation, odd-measured phrases, fancy counterpoint, and other tricks. At some point, composers get bored and can’t help but try something new. This spirit of experimentation has always been present in the genre, from Beethoven’s fantastic late quartets to the most contemporary works. The Rolston String Quartet’s Chamber Music Northwest concert at Alberta Rose Theater on July 3 showed their strength as an ensemble while demonstrating the string quartet’s special compositional spirit.
Mozarty dissonance, Schaeffery waves
Mozart’s String Quartet in C major, nicknamed “Dissonance,” isn’t actually all that dissonant by today’s standards. The nickname comes from the first movement’s adagio opening, a meandering introduction that foreshadows the more rich harmonic language to come in the next two centuries. There are still remnants of pianistic writing (e.g. an Alberti Bass pattern in the second movement), and my overall impression is of a piano transcription rather than a distinctly string-based approach to writing. But that’s more a judgement of my personal tastes than of Herr Mozart’s compositional abilities–I prefer his orchestral writing to his chamber works–and it remains one of his most celebrated quartets.
R. Murray Schaffer’s Second String Quartet, subtitled “Waves,” is an ode to the ocean. Schaffer (b. 1933) is a contemporary Canadian composer and pioneer of acoustic ecology whose World Soundscape Project research studies the relationship between humans and their acoustic environment. In “Waves,” Schaffer incorporates paintings of natural sound such as loon calls, crashing waves, and dripping water to create an oceanic diegesis. It is tense, mysterious and achingly beautiful. While the counterpoint and rich harmonies of Mozart and Brahms are scant in “Waves,” slowly-evolving textures strike a perfect balance of consonance and dissonance, noise and silence.
Each member of the quartet gains even more independence in this piece, with rhythms that do not often line up neatly. These chance-driven aleatoric rhythms don’t quite generate chaos, but rather create dense clusters of notes heard as a single unit–much like ocean waves composed of uncountable water molecules. Harmonically, the piece mostly centers around D, expanding outwards until climaxing on a tritone across the ensemble. In Schaeffer’s sound world, harmonies are used more for their holistic sound rather than a more classically hierarchical function.
Schaffer also uses extended techniques very tastefully: the cello plays melodies using high A-string harmonics, and the sound of dripping water is created through soft col legno notes, a technique in which the player uses the wood on the back side of the bow. At the end, the two violinists and violist stood up and walked through the audience playing their last notes, adding a nice spatialization to the ending.
After the intermission we came back to hear Brahms’ String Quartet in A minor. As a composer, I’ve always respected Brahms more than enjoy him: I understand and appreciate his talents, but with a few exceptions I never resonated with his music as much as with his more dramatic contemporaries. Despite that, I still found the string quartet enjoyable. Rolston’s performance emphasized the music’s dramatic key and texture changes, giving it a sense of dynamism it sorely needs. Some of the dense contrapuntal textures—where each member of the quartet plays similar but interconnected melodies—mark a departure from the earlier homophonic textures of Mozart and foreshadow the more progessive works of Schoenberg.
As a complete program, the concert progressed over three centuries of string quartet repertoire. It wasn’t chronological–placing Schaffer second did give the show a more clear arc, with the newest, most distinctive work in the middle. This divergence emerges not only from its expanded tonal and textural palette, but from its entire musical outlook. In the wake of Cage, Cowell, Partch, and Harrison, composers (mostly from the West Coast and Canada) eschewed the more conservative, cosmopolitan music of Europe and New York, looking to Asian music and natural landscapes for inspiration. Schaffer finds himself here, and his second string quartet shows his respect for masters of the genre such as Mozart and Brahms while creating his own path forward.
The Rolston String Quartet seamlessly worked its way around the very distinct performance practices these quartets require—and after hearing them perform Caroline Shaw’s Three Essays the following Friday it was clear they’ve solidified their skills at performing contemporary works. Performing new works can be risky, demanding for performers and for listeners who haven’t yet figured out how to listen to contemporary music. Rolston’s interpretation of Schaffer’s work was very effective, however, capturing the spirit of his ecological work through his music. I hope to hear them tackle more such challenging works in the future, and while the six-year-old quartet showed their breadth at the Alberta Rose, we will have to see where they will go from here as they find their voice and repertoire.
Charles Rose is a composer, sound artist, and recent graduate of Portland State University. He is the sound engineer for FearNoMusic and a contributor to PSU’s journal Subito.
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