QUADRANTS / BABCOCK: The Present Moment. MORROW: Rose Moon: String Quartet in 3 Movements. SMART: 3 Fantasies on African-American Songs. NEWMARK: Tom Dooley Without the Fringe on Top. WHITE: 2 Panels for String Quartet.* MACAULAY: 3 Pieces for String Quartet. MEHOCIC: Picasso’s Flight. WITTER: String Quartet No. 4 / Altius Quartet; *Parisa Zaeri, cond / Navona NV6239
On this new CD, the Altius Quartet presents eight works by eight different American composers. Bruce Babcock was praised by Aaron Copland, whose style his resembles to a large degree, and mentored by Earle Hagen. This intrigued me since Hagen wrote one of the most unusual pieces of the swing era, “Harlem Nocturne,” which was recorded to good effect by Shep Fields’ all-reed orchestra. The Present Moment is a tuneful but also quite interesting work, interspersing edgy rhythmic figures into his predominantly lyric lines. This is a very fine if not truly original piece in which the lively rhythmic figures win out.
Nora Morrow has been a musician all her life, having written songs on the guitar and improvised stories at the piano as a child. Her music, influenced by modern dance, is essentially tonal with dance rhythms running through it. That being said, I found Rose Moon to be a pleasant piece, more in the nature of three popular songs rather than in true string quartet style.
In addition to being a composer, Gary Smart has also had a career as a jazz pianist and is strongly influenced by both jazz and world music. His 3 Fantasies on African-American Songs is an interesting setting of three of them, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Black Woman” and “Short’nin Bread” using modern but not off-putting harmonic changes and essentially re-writing each piece in his own way. The first is unusual in his judicious use of string tremolos and a slow blues swagger, which the Altius Quartet plays very well. It’s a very imaginative rewriting of the old spiritual. I loved it! I admit to not being at all familiar with “Black Woman,” described as a “Women’s Prison Song,” but knowing how Smart reworked “Swing Low,” I was impressed by his imagination and ingenuity here as well, in which he even tossed in some atonal pizzicato passages for the viola and one of the violins and engaged in some interesting counterpoint. Of course I, like most people, know “Short’nin Bread,” and here Smart throws us a curve ball by converting it not into a jazz-like tune but rather into a very progressive-sounding hoedown with atonal moments and constantly moving chords. Eventually the atonality overwhelms the hoedown, but not completely, as the music moves into a very involved development section. Bravo!!
By contrast, Jonathan Newmark’s Tom Dooley Without the Fringe on Top bears only the slightest resemblance to the famous folk song of the same name. Newmark transposes the melodic line into an atonal affair, so transformed in fact that, without the title, you’d never guess that was its basis. There’s a lot of counterpoint in this one, too, and very imaginatively used. Alastair White’s 2 Panels for String Quartet are completely atonal but not necessarily 12-tone, and I was very happy to hear that he knows how to use this technique to create music and not just a labyrinth of sound that confuses the listener. Complex and modern as it is, it also has good form and structure and, in places, shows a sense of humor. I was, however, a bit puzzled as to why this string quartet needed a conductor. Surely the Altius Quartet has played works this complex in their careers before this.
Janice Macaulay’s 3 Pieces for String Quartet are also atonal, but more lyrical in general style, the music ebbing and flowing as its edgy profile wafts across your mind. I liked these very much as well, particularly her use of microtonal portamento for the strings. The second of these pieces, very slow-moving, created a hypnotic effect as well.
Beth Mehocic, a professor of Dance and Music at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, has a style closer aligned with György Ligeti, creating strange and at times dark-sounding textures with the strings, but she also has a strong rhythmic sense (probably from her dance experience) which permeates Picasso’s Flight. This has nothing to do with the painter, but is about her family’s African Grey parrot. The music is exceptionally edgy, almost violent…Picasso must be a parrot who escapes from his cage and flies into people’s faces, pecking at their skin! And yet the music suddenly pulls back from the edge of violence but not entirely from its darkness, with long lines for the cello and pizzicato figures for the violins.
We end our journey with the simply-named String Quartet No. 4 by Phelps Dean Witter, a piece that, unlike the Morrow piece, actually sounds like a string quartet. The first movement, very slow, returns us to tonality but not to an echt-Romantic world; there’s too much of interest going on here, particularly in Witter’s subtle method of shifting keys right under our ears. The music develops slowly but surely, opening before us like the petals of a flower. In the midst of the first movement, Witter suddenly throws in a jaunty tune in 6/8, embroidered by countermelodies and counterpoint. The second movement, a fairly short waltz, is less adventurous harmonically, while the quick third movement is built around rhythmic figures in which the harmony moves with the rhythm. The strings then become involved in a sort of swirling series of figures, sometimes intertwining, sometimes not. It’s not necessarily a great piece, but it’s clever and inventive and I liked it very much.
So there you have it. With the exception of Rose Moon, I recommend it very highly.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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