GREEN GROUND / GUDMUNDSEN-HOLMGREEN: No Ground (String Quartet No. 11)*. Green (To the greenwood must we go)+. No Ground Green*+. New Ground (String Quartet No. 10)*. New Ground Green*+ / *Kronos Quartet; +Theater of Voices, dir. Paul Hillier / Dacapo 8.226153
Here is another album from Dacapo of the music of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, whose Incontri I reviewed earlier this month. This time it’s a series of pieces, all composed in 2011, for string quartet, vocal quartet, or a combination of both.
The Kronos Quartet first came to prominence in the late 1970s by pioneering a sort of music that lay halfway between jazz and classical, sometimes giving classicalized performances of jazz works per se as in the case of Charles Mingus’ Myself When I Am Real. I was never very comfortable with their sense of rhythm, however; it always sounded a bit too square and stiff for me, which is why I wholeheartedly embraced the Turtle Island String Quartet when they came around in the early 1980s.That being said, there is a certain jazz-like feeling in the way they play Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s string quartets here. Since the composer wrote these two quartets, and one previously, for the Kronos Quartet, I assume that he liked the way they played his music. It is typically angular, asymmetrical and formally “unbalanced” music, creating moods while thumbing its nose at classical form. As with the orchestral works in Incontri, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen combines the abrasive with the absurd. Just think of it as modern-day Dada, a sort of higher-level P.D.Q. Bach.
Trying to describe the opening quartet in words—or any of his music in words—is inevitably going to fail because the music takes so many unexpected turns and practically none of them fit a verbal narrative. This is even true of the one “purely” vocal piece, Green (To the greenwood we must go), in which a quartet of voices sing wordless vowel sounds while several percussion instruments hammer away happily in the background, almost oblivious to anything they are singing. And yet this music is tonal, if only just barely so, and has a melodic form. With Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s music, you just have to go with the flow. In the latter section of Green, the four-part writing almost sounds like the Norman Luboff Choir in reductio.
And I’m sure one will notice, in the header, the comical string of titles of these works which, when read together in sequence, produce a tongue-twister: No Ground – Green – No Ground Green – New Ground – New Ground Green. It’s all part of the nuttiness that was going on in the composer’s head. It’s almost as if some lively, drunken brain cells broke free of his frontal lobes, went out and get stoned, then came home and directed his musical writing. I’m not knocking it, mind you, just trying to describe it. It’s way different from the average bear.
Moreover, he seems to have written these pieces sequentially, since No Ground Green picks up where Green leaves off, extending the writing now to include the string quartet with the voices and percussion in a multi-movement work. The Norman Luboff Choir meets a Bartók string quartet and Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter. Or something like that. As I said in my earlier review of his music, it’s amazing that he manages to make these disparate elements jell together—and also that he makes you smile and sometimes laugh. It’s all part of his musical “happening.”
The next quartet, New Ground, begins like an old madrigal but has what I would describe as “drunken interludes” played by the strings. One of the succeeding movements sounds like a funky hoedown, but as it wends its way along, you begin to notice a familiar tune coming to the fore. By golly, it’s the Pachelbel Kanon, with “an extra bar and a little chromatic detour on its way home.” This wacky Baroque mood is extended into the last piece, New Ground Green, in which the four voices are again backed by the string quartet. A few happy war whoops from the singers push the quartet—and the percussion—over the finish line.
This is a wonderfully imaginative recording, albeit one that’s pretty far off from center. I dare you to play it, loudly, at your next fancy-delancy Sunday brunch!
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley