The Pacifica Quartet Plays Contemporary Voices

cover - CDR 196

CONTEMPORARY VOICES / RAN: Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory – String Quartet No. 3. HIGDON: Voices. ZWILICH: Quintet for Alto Saxophone & String Quartet* / Pacifica Quartet; *Otis Murphy, a-sax / Çedille CDR-196

This new disc from Çedille features the excellent, sleek-sounding Pacifica Quartet in three modern works, all by women composers…and on top of that, American women composers (Ran was born in Israel but is an American citizen) and all composers whose work I like.

Unfortunately, my download did not include any liner notes, but I was able to glean a few things from the description of this disc on Çedille’s website. Ran’s String Quartet No. 3 was written for the Pacifica Quartet and commemorates painter Felix Nussbaum, who died in 1944. Both this work and the Zwilich piece are first recordings. The music is unusually edgy even for Ran, though it starts out calmly before running into fast-moving modal figures with harsh, edgy downbow strokes. The music consistently tends towards the minor, and many of the passages in it are descending figures as if to emphasize the painter’s anguish. Nussbaum was a surrealist whose work showed some skill without quite reaching the heights of Dali or Magritte (see picture below), and in the second movement, titled “Menace,” Ran creates a very edgy waltz that hovers on the brink of bitonality without ever quite arriving there, but in the third movement, “If I perish—do not let my paintings die,” we again tend towards minor modal music, this time in a sadder mood than in the first movement although with no less edgy figures played occasionally by the upper strings. By and large, Ran seems to create this entire quartet more out of juxtaposed gestures and motifs which somehow fit together rather than using development in the traditional manner. The last two minutes of the third movement are almost gut-wrenching in their emotional power while the fourth, titled “Shards, Memory,” is for the most part quite slow, although with the cello playing sharp rhythmic figures with his bow very close to the body of his instrument near the beginning. This, however, dies down in tempo and fury until only sadness is left, with the first violin playing whistle tones in its extreme upper register.


Artwork by Felix Nussbaum, from

Jennifer Higdon describes her Voices as “the telling of three different images,” and the first of these, “Blitz,” is surprisingly edgy and powerful for her, quite a difference from her usual style which is inventive but more lyrical. Indeed, this almost sounded like a continuation of Ran’s quartet except that Higdon uses stronger, more regular motor rhythms here. Apparently, this is the voice of an insane person screaming in an asylum! The music does a complete 180 in terms of mood in the second piece, “Soft Enlacing,” which she likens to “a walk through the house in the middle of the night.” Interestingly, this movement begins right on the heels of the last bars of “Blitz,” almost as if it was a continuation, and Higdon’s night walk through her house is not a calm journey. On the contrary, there’s something ominous lying just beneath the surface that bursts out once in a while, then retreats into the constant flow of rapid sixteenths played by the violins until that, too, dies down—yet the high pitch and bitonal figures Higdon uses keep the tension up. In the last movement, “Grace,” she finally presents us with a calm musical surface, simulating (in her words) “the giving of thanks at a meal; the grace seen in behavior or in a personality; the grace of movement; the bestowing of one’s self unto others…” Yet even in the first two edgy movements, as in the slow, relaxed last one, Higdon tenaciously clings to a more traditional sense of musical development than Ran. Even in its edgiest moments, the connective flow of the music is apparent. Taking away the composer’s own descriptions of these pieces, the cumulative effect is clearly a gradual movement from anxiety to calm, from insanity to lucidity, from angst to inner peace, and that is how I heard this music.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, my favorite of living women composers, created the Quintet for Alto Saxophone and Strings as the result of a challenge from saxophonist Jean-Paul Bierny of the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music. And yet another coincidence: jut as the first movement of Higdon’s piece sounded like a continuation of Ran, the first movement of this Zwilich Quintet sounded at first like a continuation of Higdon, but after the slow introduction Zwilich sets up a gentle, bouncing waltz rhythm (possibly in 6/8) which contains the seeds for the remainder of the first movement. Interestingly, the alto sax is often used in ensemble with the strings rather than as an “outsider” instrument playing against the strings as if in a concerto, though of course it does get solo spots. I found this interesting in itself: who else would think to blend an alto sax in with a string quartet? Of course, saxist Otis Murphy plays his instrument in the accepted classical manner, with a very pure, round, almost hollow tone, sounding like a lower sort of clarinet rather than emulating the rich, beautiful alto sax tones of Johnny Hodges or Willie Smith.

As the music progressed, however, I wondered whether or not Zwilich even considered the timbral qualities of the alto sax other than writing within its range ; by and large, she uses the instrument, musically speaking, almost like a tenor violin, which has an almost identical range. In the second movement, quarter = 132, she uses strong backbeat syncopations but does so in a non-jazz manner—or perhaps, to be more accurate, in almost a ragtime manner, which of course is not jazz. Yet I found this particular movement extremely interesting, particularly since one rarely hears the saxophone in any solo capacity in this jagged, fast-moving whirlwind of sound. In terms of construction and development, however, the third movement was, to me, the most fascinating, and not just because it varied its pace between 60, 126, and 120 beats per minute. Here, Zwilich quite consciously introduces strong syncopations that do resemble jazz, and all I could think of was someone like the late Lee Konitz, who played jazz but also loved classical music, playing this movement. Although both the themes and their development are highly rhythmic, it is easy to follow Zwilich’s train of thought through the constant tempo and rhythm shifts. It’s an excellent piece, and proof positive that her powers of invention have not waned in the 21st century.

All in all, a truly superb album and one of those rarities in which each of the three pieces played seem to be part of a larger fabric.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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