Sirius Quartet’s Thought-Provoking New CD

Sirius Quartet Paths Become Lines

PATHS BECOME LINES / HARMAN: Paths Become Lines; Heal. FUNG: Ceili; Spidey Falls!; Get in Line. HUEBNER: Racing Mind; String Quartet No. 4, Op. 44, “The Wollheim Quartet.” / Sirius Quartet / Autentico Music AMCDA00004

The Sirius Quartet, consisting of violinists Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Huebner, violist Ron Lawrence and cellist Jeremy Harman, is probably the most unique group of its kind in the West. I emphasize “the West” because, in certain Asian and Middle Eastern countries, the spirit of group improvisation allied with individual improvisation is not as uncommon, but it is quite rare in the West because, as we all know, improvisation is not a skill taught in most classical conservatories. What is taught in most conservatories are sight-reading and killer chops. The majority of “musicians” graduating from these halls of “learning” actually don’t know anything about music, as can be heard from any number of fast-playing, non-phrasing, flippity-doo-dah style, trying to break the speed limit for number of notes per minute without a clue to such niceties as phrasing, and thus without a clue as to what music and musicality really are.

But these four musicians are very different. Possibly taking their cue from the groundbreaking Turtle Island String Quartet, the first such group in music history, the Sirius musicians combine the full gamut of musical experience in their pieces. Most of these works have a composed framework the same way the jazz pieces of, say, George Russell and Charles Mingus had frameworks, but so much of the interior of each piece is improvised that unless one is aware where the score stops there is no way to tell just from listening where the lines are drawn.

Moreover, they are democratic in their distribution of compositions as well, as the composer credits above show, as well as diverse in their compositional style. Jeremy Harman’s Paths Become Lines, built on minimalist ideas and a rock beat, is as different from his other composition, Heal, as Mahler is from Debussy. Paths Become Lines is a very dramatic piece, one which could have become stagnant were it not for the imaginative solos, the one played beginning 3:50 being perhaps the closest to rock music while the one following at 4:20 seems to combine a bluegrass feel as David Balakrishnan does so fluently within the TISQ. The only real issue I had with this opening number was that it seemed to me built around a single musical cell except for the introduction and coda; to my ears, it stops in the middle of a thought.

But then comes Fung’s Ceili, a slow-moving piece that combines the feel of Eastern music with the blues. This is much more interesting in its development section, with apparently improvised passages playing around the cello’s steady, almost metronomic repeated E’s. The feeling of the piece is, by and large, E minor although it really seems to be a modal piece. Once again, harmonic movement is at a minimum, but when it does occur it lifts the mood temporarily, moving into what feels like G major at 3:43 with only a minimal transition. At this point, the viola and one of the violins take over the steady clip-clip while Harman plays a very jazzy and bluesy improvisation on the cello. (Those who read my review of Sophie Dunér’s new release, Dizzy, will recognize Harman’s name as he is the only instrumentalist on that album.) This bluesy feel is picked up by the next solo, which becomes quite dramatic.

Interestingly, I felt that the beat of Racing Mind strongly resembled some of the “world music” jazz the late Yusef Lateef played back in the 1950s, transferred to strings. This, too, has a certain resemblance to minimalism, here tending towards E minor with a quite startling transposition at 1:33. At this point, the listener will have realized that on this CD at least, Sirius Quartet is intent on creating mind states rather than pieces whose structure overwhelms the listener…in other words, intuitive rather than intellectual music. The sudden appearance of long, soaring lines by the upper strings also changes the temper of the music, transmuted into TISQ-style bluegrass at 2:55. A series of bow-on-instrument rhythmic taps come to the fore around 4:02 and stick around for about a minute, playing not on the beat but against it. Would that the average classical string quartet had this grasp of rhythm even when playing conventional works!

Spidey Falls! is probably the oddest piece on the album, an uptempo romp beginning with a series of fast tremolos in the right channel against rhythmic “clicks” in the left, the tonality starting out bitonal and never really becoming settled. Eventually all three upper strings are playing tremolos until the tempo slows down and the whole piece appears to come to an end…except it doesn’t. The pulse changes to a “slow drag” and the blues feeling once again comes to the fore. At 4:05 we suddenly arrive at a tempo double that of the opening, with three of the four musicians playing rhythm against the bodies of their instruments, then the viola in the right channel (again playing tremolos) while the cello provides a wild pizzicato accompaniment.

Huebner’s String Quartet is by far the most classically-structured piece on this record, albeit a modern classical piece that does not provide restful tonalities. Indeed, after a slow introduction, the first movement indulges in a number of rhythmic effects every bit as startling as in Spidey Falls! but, if one listens closely, somewhat more structured. The quartet members then bounce eights off each other in counterpoint starting at the two-minute mark, and here a sort of blues-funk rhythm is created, the improvised passages that follow apparently acting as the development section of this movement. Towards the end, the tempo doubles as the tonality becomes even more unsettled with a sudden break in the action before the eerie second movement, titled “Shir La Shalom,” emerges in all its glory. This movement is extremely difficult to put into words because, on the surface, nothing much seems to happen, although the surface and underlying textures are constantly in a state of flux. The third movement starts off equally dark and moody, maintaining a feeling of unease, built in the beginning around Harman’s cello playing very far down in its range, a cappella, before the other instruments suddenly enter at the two-minute mark and the pace picks up. Here we can appreciate the quartet’s members’ abilities to improvise around each other using a basic rhythmic cell as a basis, branching out into a more melodic vein around the three-minute mark. Melodic playing then turns rhythmic, simulating a pulsating feeling before a slow decelerando to the end.

The last movement, titled simply “Presto,” almost seems to be part of another world, so rhythmic and lively is it. Here, too, a rock beat re-enters the picture; this is the part I felt least comfortable with (I don’t like most rock music). Nonetheless, within its parameters it is interesting and astonishingly inventive as all members of the quartet jump in with both feet and work around it, even to the point of creating spontaneous counterpoint around the 2:48 mark, my favorite portion of this movement. The Richard Greene-invented rhythmic “chop” is then heard in the background as one of the violinists takes off on a wild improvisation, followed by a pizzicato passage that leads into more bluegrass-informed improvisation. The rush towards the sudden coda seemed a bit truncated to me, but it works and fits in.

Get in Line begins with a repeated motif that changes pitch but not rhythm as we move into a more heavily rhythmic (albeit asymmetrical rhythm) passage with one of the solo violins playing wild lines above the cello’s syncopated ground bass and rhythmic “chops” from the others. By contrast, Heal starts out a bit like gamelan music without the gamelans, played against a jazz beat with considerable variance and improvisation from the members of the quartet, but ends up as very strong soul-jazz with an infectious beat to it.

I found it interesting to note that, aside from their rock and jazz elements, Sirius Quartet seems to naturally lean in these pieces towards a bluegrass or “country” expression. I say this because, after hearing them accompany saxist Ivo Perelman on his CD The Passion According to G.H. (see my review here), I expected something closer to free jazz, possibly more structured classically with a jazz feel and beat. But this CD shows how diverse and versatile Sirius can be, and is thus highly recommended to all lovers of modern, non-traditional string quartet music with strong roots in American popular culture with splashes of world music.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of classical music and jazz

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