Roger Reynolds’ String Quartets

cover MOD-CD-326

REYNOLDS: FLIGHT. not forgotten / JACK Quartet / Mode MOD-CD-326-1

American composer, who turned 85 this past July 18, is not a household name. One listen to his music will tell you why. Reynolds does not write music that is the least bit easy to assimilate. He gives very little to the listener in the way of guideposts to hang onto. His music challenges you at every turn; strange, suspended openings, atonal swoops and dives by the strings, and other strange sounds. In terms of his atonalism he is in step with a great many composers of his generation, yet at least in these two works presented here—both written in the 21st century—there seems very little that relates to any other composer though he borrows a few ideas from several.

This doesn’t mean that Reynolds is eclectic in the sense that he sounds like others, because he clearly doesn’t. All it means is that he learned certain techniques from others that serve him well. The music is extremely difficult to describe, as was the music of Harry Partch, because it doesn’t really fit into a describable pattern. In the first movement of FLIGHT, for instance, he builds a slow-moving but intricate web of sliding chromatics around simple, one- or two-note sustained figures at a time. By the seven-minute mark, the music suddenly quadruples in tempo and becomes more agitated, yet once again it’s difficult to put his music into words.

Indeed, due to what I would describe as the “fluctuating” quality of Reynolds’ music, even when it is fast and somewhat furious, as in the second movement, it is still somewhat elusive to the lazy listener. It’s not so much that the music is too complex to grasp, or too fast-moving, but so different n the way it moves and its progression that it takes all your powers of concentration to follow the bouncing ball, so to speak. There’s something about this piece that, rather than describing conventional flight—a bird, a glider, an airplane—seems to be descriptive of a UFO hovering overhead and occasionally swooping down to frighten or annoy the population.

If anything, it is the chromatic upward swirls of not forgotten that sounds more like flight. Here, in fact, Reynolds plays into the idea of flight much more with this upward and downward motion, using microtonal music in a manner similar to that of Júlian Carillo. At 1:23 into the second movement, Reynolds finally presents us with at least a short motif, played by the viola, to hang on to, but then just as quickly pulls the rug out from under us.

As this second quartet went on, however, I began to realize that all of this music fell into the same pattern, and although each individual movement by itself was good, the cumulative effect was déjà vu. It’s more than just Reynolds’ signature style, it’s a bit of a rut. Without at least some variety in the writing, all you produce are isolated pieces that really can’t be programmed together because of their similarity. In the last movement of this second quartet, Reynolds adds some banging and scraping sounds for variety but the overall pattern is about the same.

Yet the CD is interesting to hear at least once, and the performances by the JACK Quartet are excellent.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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