Paterson’s Whimsical String Quartets


PATERSON: String Quartets Nos. 1-3 / The Indianapolis Qrt / American Modern Recordings AMR1054

It’s difficult to pinpoint just what it is about Robert Paterson’s music that makes it interesting, modern and audience-friendly all at the same time. The first thing that leaps out at you, aside from his tongue-in-cheek handling of themes and fast-paced energy, is his rhythmic vitality, and I can tell you from very long experience in reviewing modern music that, except for those few composers who combined jazz elements with their music, such as Daniel Schnyder, Laurie Altman and the late Nikolai Kapustin, emphasizing rhythms that average audiences can follow is a rare commodity.

Robert Paterson

But here they are, all on display as you go from movement to movement. The first quartet, for instance, opens up with a briskly paced first movement (titled, appropriately enough, “Fast and Sprightly”), while the second movement with its humorous handling of a very drunk-sounding waltz that also has, to my ears, country & western overtones, is titled “Logy.” Paterson clearly tips his hand by giving his movements titles that let you know what you’re in for; the third movement is a “Luscious Legato,” although here his use of bitonal harmonies somewhat undercut what an average listener today would think is luscious (think of all the drippy slow music out there that is passed off nowadays as “classical”), and the last is titled “Energetic Polka.” You can’t get more obvious than that—but even this movement had more than a touch of a hoedown in it, not to mention some contrapuntal figures in bitonal harmony. Some polka!

And yet, as I say, his music is good. Beneath the harmonic devices and the entertaining aspects, much of it has real substance. Since I don’t know much about Paterson, I can’t say what his musical influences, other than classical, are, but whatever the case he seems to have a wellspring of interesting ideas and devices which he uses. In short, he’s the kind of composer I wish I were if I had a single composing bone in my body.

The second quartet, which dates from 19 years later, has similar traits of urgent rhythmic drive, bitonal harmonies and a very original way of developing his themes, yet the music is not that much like the first despite following a similar pattern. This is evident in the humorous title he gave to its second movement, “Rigor Mortis.” Apparently, Paterson enjoys giving his scherzos truly funny titles, which is apropos since scherzo essentially means “joke.” True to its title, “Rigor Mortis” has an obstinately stiff rhythm played at a fast tempo as well as his trademark humorous asides. There’s also an unexpected lyrical interlude in the middle…and, yes, another suggestion of a hoedown. This time, however, the music comes crashing to a halt before the slow movement, here tiled “Dolente.” Interestingly. this movement is almost a mirror image of “Rigor Mortis,” starting and ending slowly with a fast episode in the middle, but this time the rhythms are slower and more insistent. Paterson also fractures the music much more in this movement; it almost sounds more “Schizophrenic” than “Dolente.” Whether purposely or not, much of this movement sounds scattered, as if the themes can’t quite decide which direction they want to take.

But Paterson doesn’t stop there. The fourth movement, titled “Scherzando,” channels some of the drunken feeling of “Logy” from the first quartet, but here, too the music stops and restarts several times. Perhaps Paterson should have called this is “Indecisive Quartet.” In this movement, there’s also skewed quotes from “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” A truly strange work! In the finale, appropriately titled “Collage,” Paterson uses similar devices. Here he generally manages to pick up his musical train of thought in essentially the same vein after each short pause, but not always.

The first movement of the third quartet is titled “Twist and Shout” though it is not related to the Isley Brothers’ tune of the same name, although twist it does. Here, thankfully, Paterson reverts to the tighter form of his first quartet, using less pauses and writing more continuous music. The rhythms are really twisted, however, thus it isn’t the kind of piece that audiences are going to get up and dance to. The second movement, “Poet Voice,” is set to a medium tempo; after a somewhat edgy opening, Paterson employs a somewhat doleful theme in the cello around which the upper strings add their own comments, including violin tremolos. In a way, it’s just as “twisty” in its theme and development as the first movement. The next movement, “Auction Chant,” simulates the rapid-fire chatter of a country auctioneer, using fast pizzicato and spiccato figures in the upper strings, letting the viola emulate the auctioneer. Although not really a jazz piece, it has the same kind of rhythmic drive and insouciance as one of the Turtle Island String Quartet’s pieces. Later on, the music suddenly slows down, presenting a new theme that is surprisingly tonal and lyrical before picking up the original tempo for the finale.

I found “Effects Pedal,” on the other hand, to have a touch of jazz rhythm about it, at least a syncopation that touched on jazz, with the cello doing the syncopated rhythm beneath the other three strings. (I think David Balakrishnan, founder of the Turtle Island Quartet, would really like this piece.) I really like the way Paterson teases the listener’s ear by keeping things moving, albeit in quirky rhythms, in such a way that you have to pay attention but you don’t mind doing so because, deep down, the music is enjoyable. The fifth and last movement, “Anthem,” is another lively piece, sort of like a hoedown in counterpoint. (Balakrishnan would like this one, too.) Perhaps the almost consistently quick tempi are a bit too much of a good thing, and there were moments when I wished that Paterson would perhaps get just a little more serious about his thematic development, but he has his own style and this is it.

There are no two ways about it: Robert Paterson’s music is both modern in every respect you can think of—harmonically, rhythmically and thematically—but audience-friendly at the same time. It’s a little nutty, but the world needs more humor in classical music. We have far too much of the “oh-God-I’m-so-depressed-and-serious” type.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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