String Quartet No. 2

string quartet (1997) -- violin I, violin II, viola, cello

(duration ca. 20 minutes)

full performance notes:

String Quartet No.2: Another Lark Quartet is in three movements (none of which has anything to do with a certain quartet by Haydn or with songbirds of any sort). The overall tempo scheme of the movements is fast–slow–fast, with the exception of a very slow section at the heart of the first movement. The work was commissioned by the Lark Quartet which is in residence at Ohio University.

Movement I opens with a dramatic signal motive that gives way to serpentine contrapuntal lines, which converge several times in order to restate the opening motive before diverging again. Through a process of development that includes fragmentation and vigorous syncopated chords, as well as the diverging and converging contrapuntal lines of the opening, the energetic first section eventually leads into a subdued second section. This section features lyrical solo lines, traded among the instruments, over a constant murmur of quiet sixteenth notes. A ritard at the end of this second section brings the movement to a complete standstill before the very slow third section begins. The markedly different quality of this section is deliberately disorienting, especially in its implications for the overall form. Though it foreshadows ideas to come, its primary role is to suspend for a while, precisely at the midpoint, the movement’s propulsive drive and formal development — thus delaying the return of the opening ideas.

Movement II, performed almost entirely with mutes on, alternates between two contrasting ideas. The very slow ethereal chords that open the movement recur, transformed, at key intervals throughout the movement. Between these passages a very slow-motion dance rhythm serves as a backdrop for lyrical solos in the cello, viola, and first violin. A pair of punctuating pizzicato gestures round out the movement. During the course of the movement, the music between the ethereal chords undergoes a subtle evolution toward an understated playfulness — the first cracking of a smile in what has so far been (especially by my usual standards) a very serious  composition.

Movement III is a wild ride from beginning to end. With a glancing reference to the opening signal motive of Movement I (inverted), the final movement proceeds in a manner that takes inspiration from any number of folk/pop/rock/blues models that make use of chromatic “bluesy” inflections of the basic pentatonic scale. Formally, much of this movement is highly fragmented.  For example, at the beginning the music seems to “start over”  a couple of times before being interrupted by some grungy chords pounded out over a funky, syncopated bass line. Finally the cello emerges with a thematic statement that provides some welcome focus in the midst of the mayhem. Later the juxtaposition of short, sharply contrasting ideas becomes more patterned, deriving interest and tension from slight alterations of the durations between interruptions. Eventually the carving up of these musical ideas whittles them away to nothing. Then, borrowing ideas from the beginning of the movement as a transition, the music builds back up into a full-blown recapitulation. This time through, the first violin joins the cello in presenting an extended version of the earlier thematic statement, though not at precisely the same time. The final breathless rush to the ending features eight bars of “dueling violins” which spill into a whirlwind of blues-inflected pentatonic riffs that will surely test the flash and virtuosity of any string quartet. Just in case the notes flew by too fast for adequate comprehension, the “surprise” tag ending or codetta, which echoes the second movement’s sly ending, will reveal the “true nature” of all those chromatically inflected pentatonic riffs highlighted throughout the movement — or maybe it just reveals the “true nature” of their composer. I call your attention to this “surprise” ending in the spirit of a magician or illusionist you invites you to check to make sure there is nothing up his sleeve and nothing in the hat — and then proceeds to pull out a rabbit.