The Siggi Quartet Plays South of the Circle

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SOUTH OF THE CIRCLE / BJARNASON: Stillshot. SVEINBJARNARDÓTTIR: Opacity. SIGURĐSSON: Nebraska. RAGNARSDÓTTIR: Fair Flowers. TÓMASSON: Seremonia / Siggi String Quartet / Sono Luminus DSL-92232

The Siggi String Quartet is a fairly new group, founded in 2012 during the Young Scandinavian Composers festival in Reykjavik. Although they have previously recorded music by the vastly-overrated Philip Glass (a member of my “junk composers” list), they have also actively sought out new music and thus present some of it on this new release.

It opens with Stillshot by Daniel Bjarnason, described in the liner notes as “dreamy and nostalgic.” I found it, actually, to be quite dramatic; if this is a Scandinavian’s idea of “dreamy,” they must have some weird nightmares! But it is excellent music, written as a chaconne (which, alas, is way too edgy to qualify for my “Cheerful Chaconne Contest”), though the listener will have to struggle to discern the chaconne form beneath its rather disturbing surface and very slow tempo. The Siggi Quartet, like many modern groups today, also plays with extremely bright sonorities and taut phrasing, which add to the disturbing feeling in this work, which becomes suddenly loud in places you don’t expect it to, with sharp shards of sound produced by the upper strings.

Next up is Opacity by violinist/composer Una Sveinbjarnardóttir. She describes it in the liner notes as “an experiment where I wrote long, movement-long solos for each instrument of the Quartet.” This music, too, combines a lyrical line with edgy qualities; this seems to be a trait of many modern Scandinavian composers. The second movement, written for the cello, is surprisingly quick in tempo and very rhythmic, just the opposite of what you would expect, using simple modal harmonies. Towards the end, the violins play very high, ghostly-sounding, edge-of-the-string figures. The viola gets the eerie, slow third movement while the second violin gets the fourth, in which its long, slow notes are played against brief edgy figures by the rest of the quartet.

Valgeir Sigurđsson’s Nebraska was commissioned by the Chiara String Quartet and premiered by them at the Merkin Concert Hall in Lincoln Center. The piece essentially stays in A major using modal scale steps and repeated rhythmic figures in the by-now-familiar minimalist style in the first movement, reverting to the kind of edgy slow music of the preceding pieces in the second. By and large, however, I found this music more gimmicky and predictable than its predecessors on the album.

Fair Flowers was written by Mamiko Dis Ragnarsdóttir, a classical pianist who also plays pop and jazz music. The notes tell us that the work is based “on a strict system of colors” based on a painting of flowers by Icelandic artist Eggert Pétursson, but the colors are not identified. Since I don’t hear music in colors, you’ve got me as to which ones they’re supposed to be, but the music itself is hypnotic in its use of slow, overlapping figures in a slow, elegiac form. At 3:30 the music slowly begins to develop, adding small, sharply-edged figures and increasing the underlying tempo by doubling the notes given to the cello. By 6:40, the piece has become much louder in volume and more complex in structure, putting together the building blocks of the opening figures in a sort of crazy-quilt pattern. Towards the end, she indulges in a bit of bitonality, to good effect.

Haukur Tómasson’s Serimonia is completely different in style from the preceding music: highly rhythmic, almost sounding like those sprockets in a jack-in-the-box that make attractive but percussive sounds when the handle is cranked. It is music obviously based on a strict mathematical form, lacking in melody and to a certain extent in harmony, in which “five types of textures are exposed and repeated in a different order, always played very soft and without interpretation.” So there! A nice mind game, attractive in that respect but not the kind of music that will stick with you.

So there you have it. A pretty strange disc with some very interesting pieces on it, a modern string quartet program that takes chances and, for the most part, succeeds.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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