Saturday, March 19, 2011

Like Father, Like Son? Not Anymore

          Steps to the most interesting encounter to ever happen:
1.      - Make herbal resurrection remedy
2.       -Bring Haydn back from the dead
3.       -Buy him a new coat, dust off his wig, introduce him to the idea of cars
4.       -Take him to a JACK Quartet performance
5.       -Have him listen to one of Aaron Cassidy’s string quartets
6.       -Watch what happens
                I suppose an event like this would not be too different from taking Corregio to a Pollock exhibit, handing Shakespeare a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl, or perhaps showing Michelangelo a Calder sculpture. The most likely similar reaction could range from excitement, to contempt, to pure confusion. Giving one of the founding fathers of the string quartet something that is so different from the now-standard musical form he made centuries ago would juxtapose the two extremes we have come to of these categories, and create a wide expanse of time that is filled with baby steps between each. The point is, the string quartet has changed a lot from its toddler years in the hands of Papa Haydn, with its classic four-movement, tonic-supertonic-tonic-tonic roots, to something completely different. That “something” includes string quartets that only last one expanse of around 9 minutes, ones with movements dedicated to syncopated pizzicato, ones with notation that look more like blueprints, to ones performed inside of helicopters. But, despite all this differing growth, perhaps Papa would be proud of his son.

C Major Quartet (FJH)

                The string quartet, the form we all look to in a split second as the epitome of chamber music, was actually formulated by accident. Haydn was a young composer, and he was working for Baron Carl von Joseph Edler von Fürnberg at his estate near Vienna. The Baron wanted to hear music, and the only players available were two violinists, a violist, and a cellist, the makings of what we know today as the classic string quartet. Because of this ad hoc ensemble, Haydn was inspired and went on to compose 68 others, dubbing him the father of yet another musical form. Haydn not only brought this form to the masses because of its ideal structure, but also just by being himself.  He was easily one of the most publically as well as personally well-received composers during the 1700s. So much so, even, that his friend, Dr. Charles Burney, wrote a poem titled “Verses on the Arrival of Haydn in England” to commemorate his arrival to the country (a much anticipated event) in 1791. One of the stanzas is:

HAYDN! Great Sovereign of the tuneful art!
Thy works alone supply an ample chart
Of all the mountains, seas, and fertile plains,
Within the compass of its wide domains—
Is there an Artist of the present day
Untaught by thee to think, as well as play?
Whose head thy science has not well supplied?
Whose hand thy labors have not fortified?

                These words probably parallel the emotion of many others during that time. The string quartet quickly rose to fame as well as invaded the minds of other composers, such as Mozart, who dedicated a set of six string quartets to Haydn.
                However, as the ever-morphing music world always does, the structure didn’t stay permanently in the hands of Papa forever. While his clean and bright and perfectly balanced quartets never died, the form quickly shaped throughout the rest of the Classical period. Though similar, one can detect differences in Mozart’s and Haydn’s quartets. Mozart’s seem to have a bit more of a liquid-like sound, with the strings seeming more like one being than four. Further along the timeline, Schubert’s in D minor is titled “Death and the Maiden,” a much darker emotion than any of Haydn’s possess. It employs more whacking of the strings and a more violent attack, but still holds on to many of the Classic nuances. Walter Wilson Cobbett, the chamber music expert, once wrote, "To the independent artist... the string quartet had now also become a vehicle for conveying to the world his inner struggles," which was perfect for Schubert’s introverted and troubled personality. Jumping forward a few decades, Dvořák’s quartets use folk-influenced sounds and melodies. They are much rawer and seem very “woody” to me, for lack of a more understandable word, maybe organic, or homegrown. His “American” quartet uses Western rhythms and richer chords, and some resonances in his no. 11 have very sorcerer-sounding note combinations. Along with the tonal and technical differences in the quartets coming soon after Haydn’s, the tempos and styles of the individual movements changed, even though four movements was still the standard amount. Haydn’s ordering is as follows:
Sonata form
Slow (lento, adagio, largo)
Minuet and trio
But Dvořák and Schubert’s quartets (as well as others from the Classical/Romantic era, such as Tchaikovsky’s, Mendelssohn’s, and Schumann’s) differ from this form. Brahms’s String Quartet No. 3 begins with a seemingly traditional melody, but the off-beat accents in the first movement foreshadow a changing in style, and even presents a slightly jazzy outlook in my opinion (What?! Brahms? Being jazzy?). But Brahms, despite his seemingly conservative outlook, was an innovator, and helped bridge the gap between classicism and romanticism/impressionism.

And then along came the impressionists, determined to rattle the brains of their Romantically-seasoned listeners. Their quartets are loaded with new techniques and timbres, as well as new influences. Debussy was influenced by gamelan music (the percussion-based groupings from Indonesia) as well as Japanese and other Asian areas. His music can also be connected with jazz, like I wrote about before, and his String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10 includes contemporary chords and mixes of sounds that are never present in Haydn’s music. His throaty solos of the viola cut through the rest of the instruments beautifully (such as at the beginning of the second movement, accompanied by pizzicato), and the ever-popular impressionist method of singling out one instrument while the rest quietly lurk in the background with either tremolo or arpeggios is used often. Written shortly after, Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, commonly referred to as “Elena’s Favorite String Quartet EVER,” also cut through boundaries. The melodies are extremely catchy and French (The first movement’s A-G-A-E-D… melody as well as the second movement’s A minor melody are constantly stuck in my head), but are versatile enough that they can be extended and mixed up in countless numbers of ways (and they are). The sounds range from stormy to light to surreptitious, all the while creating those phantom sounds that all composers strive to produce. The quartet was composed and submitted to the Prix de Rome as well as the Conservatoire de Paris as Ravel’s final submission; however, it was infamously rejected by both in 1904. Debussy, one who had a somewhat taciturn attitude towards other’s compositions, and a well-known rivalry with Ravel, wrote to him: “In the name of the gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet.” His rejections were perceived as unfair to the public, and made him more famous and loved than before. Gabriel Faure’s string quartets also served as steps forward during this era, with their slightly amorphous textures, abstract counterpoint, and pings of dissonant intervals.

The 20th century brought extremely significant variations on the classic string quartet. There are countless pieces to mention, ranging from Berg to Prokofiev to Webern to Villa-Lobos. Shostakovich (or known to me affectionately as “Sho-Sho”), however, is undeniably one of the masters of 20th century chamber music. His String Quartet No. 8, with its famous, intense, suspenseful first movement, is the epitome of the emotions in his part of the world during the time (he was diagnosed with polio and reticently joined the Communist Party around the time of its composition) and is dedicated to “the victims of Fascism and war.” Its C minor theme (used in five of his other works) is melancholy and subtly terrifying in the first movement, and sound unexpectedly middle-eastern. He even incorporates an eerie waltz into the mix. Contrary to Haydn’s layout, he begins the quartet with a Largo movement, and the piece is composed of five movements instead of four. The emotions Shostakovich is able to evoke from the ensemble are incredible; although it may be a bias/controversial opinion, it seems as though the emotion from string quartets intensifies as time went on past Haydn (think Barber). With the boundaries of music being stretched from purely royal entertainment, composers were able to show more private, violent, and intense emotions (despite the ominous presence of the Soviet government for Sho-Sho). Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1 begins with the layering of an E natural and F natural, a cacophonous interval that immediately sets the mood for the piece. The work has jarring harmonies, but the instruments work together in a seamless way. The last two movements have more pleasant emotions. Bartók even created his own type of pizzicato.


Then the late 20th - 21st century works came into play. As the structure that Papa laid out stretched further and further, it was around this time that the structure completely gave way to the new ways of string quartet composition. George Crumb created a new type of “movement,” with his quartet “Black Angels” for electric strings in 1970 (subtitled “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”). Like Makrokosmos, Crumb divided the three parts of his work into 4-5 sections because of his interest in numerology. The first part, “Departures,” comes screaming in with high-pitched tremolo and a stream-of-consciousness pings of thoughts from the instruments. Countless avant garde techniques are used, such as glissando’d pizzicato, and other objects such as crystal glasses, maracas, thimbles, gongs, and tam-tams are used. The second part, “Absence,” includes nervous glissandos as well as chanting from the performers (it sounds like 1, 2, 3, 4 in German, but I can’t be sure). There are hardly any traditional-sounding tones, but in “Absence” and the third part, “Return,” there are some harmonious passages. Another modern landmark of string quartets is Stockhausen’s “Helikopter-Streichquartett” (Helicopter String Quartet), premiered in 1995. The piece includes not only string instruments, but four helicopters and video/sound equipment as well. Each instrumentalist is placed inside a helicopter, and the music is literally flying. Despite the extravaganza, it wasn’t musically well-received (“…it was not, as Mr. Stockhausen claimed, important research into new sound materials, nor anything of consequence in purely musical terms. It was a grandiose absurdist entertainment, not unlike Christo's wrapping of the Reichstag back in Berlin” Alex Ross). It includes lots and lots and lots of tremolo. Other modern quartets include ones by Ligeti and Feldman, who wrote a six hour piece.  

And then, in the last self-created category of string quartets, comes the new era of notation. In this post, it only includes two composers, but I’m sure contains more than I mention. Iannis Xenakis is popularized by his mathematical methods of composition and how he created pieces by focusing more on the symbolism of the notation and seeing where they end up. His four string quartets use his methods of notation—I’m not even going to try to analyze them, though they are incredibly interesting. His most well known quartet, “Tetras,” is a big mash-up of modern sounds; it’s a collage of the weirdest things that string instruments can do. But, even though it sounds as if it would be difficult to listen to, it’s not. I recently listened to the whole quartet while driving through Napa Valley, and I wasn’t disturbed or annoyed, surprisingly. Because of the slight but existent structure to the piece, the listener is able to follow the groupings of scratches, harmonics, and glissandos. The other composer to use odd notation is Aaron Cassidy, the American-born but British-based composer. One of his most recent works “Second String Quartet” came out in 2010 and has been performed by the JACK Quartet. His method of composition is best described in the NewMusicBox article by Tim Rutherford Johnson (along with a lot of other really well written information about the work). It is a hybrid between staff notation and tablature, but instead of using exact notes, it’s more of a diagram for the instrumentalists to follow in terms of where to place their hands on the fingerboard, dynamics, bow action, and fingering, all color-coded and accurately described. The score is like a modern art piece in and of itself, and the sounds it describes are even stranger. The sound is very similar to Xenakis’s, but, unlike Xenakis’s, Cassidy’s quartets are never the exact same, for the diagrams can suggest anything from two to multiple choices—the performer gets to decide. But the quartet is not a matter of completely random sounds, because Cassidy carefully pieced together types of sounds that go together, and there is a method of counterpoint involved. The sound is hard to describe.

An example of Xenakis (Metastaseis for orchestra)

Cassidy score

Aaron Cassidy
Who knows what Papa Haydn would do if he was to listen to Cassidy? We will never know, but after the initial shock, perhaps he could be guided through the gradual timeline he planted the seed of. Mozart doesn’t seem so different from him, and Schubert’s quartets could have bumped elbows with ol’ Wolfgang’s. The Romantic era brought along the folk-influenced pieces of Dvořák and the slightly jazz foreshadowing rhythms of some of Brahms’s pieces, followed closely by the impressionism of the late 1800s/early 1900s. Debussy, Ravel, and Faure brought along pizzicato-centered movements and rich chords and harmonies and some of the catchiest melodies of quartet history. The early modernists like Shostakovich and Béla Bartók brought out immense amounts of emotion with their works, and used violent antics that bridged the tonal and atonal worlds. Soon after, composers like Crumb brought newly organized quartets and timbres while artists like Stockhausen put their quartets literally in the skies. And then along came Xenakis and Cassidy, the ones who were/are making music an art of diagrams and mathematics instead of notes.
The string quartet will always be one of the most used forms in classical music, and it’s not the only type of son that strays away from its father’s values. But sometimes, even those rebellious sons create amazing things.        

Very, very brief timeline:

Here are a few more modern quartets that are worth listening to:
    3 (best expression ever)                                                                             

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