STRING QUARTET NO. 2

Written: 2018-19
Duration: ca. 25'
Instrumentation: string quartet
Commissioned by J.K. Billman and written for and dedicated to the Euclid Quartet
World Premiere: Euclid Quartet, Mostly Modern Festival, Skidmore College, Arthur Zankel Music Center, Filene Hall, June 25, 2019.
Publisher: Bill Holab Music


Program Note

In some ways, String Quartet No. 2 is similar to my String Quartet No. 1: the five movements are stylistically diverse, I use a few snippets of pre-existing music, and the music, while idiomatic, is technically demanding. As with my first quartet, this work explores technical and aesthetic ideas I didn’t have a chance to explore in other works.

The first movement, Colored Fields, is inspired by abstract expressionist painters such as Mark Rothko, Kenneth Noland, and Barnett Newman, but also pointillist painters such as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. There are textures that emerge and submerge using articulations that gradually shift from soft to loud, or short to long, and there are a few transitions that utilize a technique I call pitch phasing or phase modulation, as opposed to tempo phasing. In these transitions, two or more instruments gradually modulate (raise or lower) notes, motives, or phrases by gradual, very refined, microtonal, non-chromatic increments, settling on new pitch areas that directly reflect the previous areas, just modulated up or town. The movement ends softly with a virtual desaturation of the rhythmic material. I remove notes, one by one, until there’s nothing left.

The second movement, Rigor Mortis, is inspired by a comic strip by David Lynch that newspapers ran for many years. In this strip, Lynch sketched a stressed-out, pitch-black dog, looking very mean and almost buzzing with anger; it looked like it was about to explode. Every strip began with an accompanying paragraph that read, “The dog who is so angry he cannot move. He cannot eat. He cannot sleep. He can just barely growl. Bound so tightly with tension and anger, he approaches the state of rigor mortis.” This made me envision musicians playing with such ferocity and tension that the music seems to eventually cancel itself out, anger imploding in on itself. The movement begins with loud barking, represented by scratch tones on the strings. It then moves to a section representing the insane, growling dog running in circles. Next, there is a section inspired by some of the philosophical sentences Lynch used in this comic strip series. Then we hear the dog barking again, but he hears a familiar theme reminding him of his long lost love, so he simmers down for a bit. However, he soon remembers his predicament and becomes angry again. The movement ends with more furious barking: he is overcome by distilled tension, imploding inward with a final, loud, buzzing unison tremolo.

The third movement, Dolente, is sad, lush, and mournful. The only request I had when writing this quartet was to incorporate a Norwegian fiddle tune or theme by Edvard Grieg, so I chose themes from Grieg’s String Quartet No. 1. The form of this movement mimics the form of a song by Edvard Grieg’s entitled Spillemaend (Minstrels, or Fiddlers). The poem that Grieg set in 1876 as the first of Six Ibsen Songs (Op. 25) is based on the Norwegian folktale of the fossegrim, a male water spirit who could teach the art of violin-playing, but often at the price of personal happiness. In some versions of the story, the poor violinist drowns in the end. Like the song, and echoing the second movement, this movement beginning with the protagonist’s longing, his desire for the beloved. Next, he encounters the fossegrim, who promises that becoming a master of music will allow the protagonist to become master of his beloved. In the final stanza, the protagonist becomes a master fiddler, but he is now a cursed, wandering musician deprived of earthly love, so he drowns himself. As in Grieg’s work, the fossegrim is represented by tremolos, chromatic descents, unexpected dynamic contrasts, and dissonant harmonies such as fully-diminished seventh chords and augmented chords.

The humorous fourth movement, Scherzando, capitalizes on effects that at times, often make the string players sound inebriated. I make use of copious glissandi and tempos that fluctuate between 3/4 and 6/8, giving a sense of unease.

The final movement, Collage, is similar to the first movement in that it is inspired by the visual arts, and specifically, collage painting and works by surrealists. Many themes from the first four movements are brought together in this odd-metered movement.

String Quartet No. 2 commissioned by J. K. Billman and is written for and dedicated to the Euclid Quartet.