The Neighborhood Church in Pasadena was the venue for the latest People Inside Electronics concert titled Music for String Quartet and Electronics, featuring the San Francisco-based Friction Quartet. Six pieces of new music were performed, including one world premiere.
Universe Explosion (2014) by Adam Cuthbert was first, undertaking the ambitious task of presenting a musical biography of the universe from its beginning to the present. This opens with a rapid, repeating figure in the high register of the violin that is soon joined by the other strings in a frenetic, yet rhythmically coherent, outpouring of notes. The electronics joined in, adding to the bustling, cosmic feel. The playing by the Friction Quartet was precise and accurate, producing a strong, satisfying groove that suggested the music of Steve Reich. The tempo gradually slows as the piece progresses and smooth passages appear that contrasted nicely with an active, syncopated counterpoint. Still later, as the tempo again slows, a strong melody emerges containing some lovely harmonies. The sweeping arc of the rhythm and tempo changes convincingly portray the vast scale of the subject. As the piece concludes, the texture decomposes into several slow, wayward fragments that quietly fade at the finish. Universe Explosion is a remarkable work, ably performed by the Friction Quartet, perfectly integrated with the electronics and fully exploiting a combined sonic palette that convincingly captures its monumental subject matter.
Harp and Altar (2009) by Missy Mazzoli followed, and the title is taken from a poem by Hart Crane about the Brooklyn Bridge. This begins with a warm, affectionate cello line that is soon joined by the other strings, becoming busier and suggesting the crossing patterns of the cables of the bridge as seen from a distance. The tutti passages soon turn forceful and assertive, alluding to the strength and massive presence looming over the Brooklyn and Manhattan waterfronts. About midway through, a recorded voice is heard singing lines and fragments from the poem, underscoring the heartfelt sincerity of music. The skillful orchestration here was carefully observed by the playing, allowing space for the recorded vocals to be heard clearly. After a dynamic and dramatic climax in the strings, the piece concludes with smooth vocal tones that fade to a finish. Harp and Altar is a genuine and unpretentious valentine to the iconic New York landmark, carefully crafted and pleasingly performed.
Unmanned (2013) by Ian Dicke was next and for this piece the acoustic sounds of Friction Quartet were reprocessed through a computer and sent to speakers on the stage. There were some software adjustments needed for this, giving Mr. Dicke a chance to remark that subject for Unmanned was the use of military drones and that his major influence for this was, tellingly, the 8th String Quartet of Dmitri Shostakovich. The opening of Unmanned is a forcefully strident tutti passage, with a pounding rhythm in the electronics and a palpable sense of tension in the strings. This shifts quickly to a series of slow, poignant phrases that evoke a quiet melancholy. As the piece progresses, feelings of uncertainty and anxiety creep back in, gradually building the tension. The ensemble through this stretch was excellent, slowly building the energy level and creating a sense of menacingly purposeful motion. About two thirds of the way through the slower, solemn feeling returned, but with a stronger undercurrent of sadness. As this continued, the string players left the stage one by one, while the electronics gradually raised in pitch and volume, arriving at a sense of profound disquiet and dread. The sounds, coming only from the speakers now, became more mechanical and increasingly disorganized, like a machine tearing itself apart – until a sudden silence marked the finish. Unmanned is a powerful musical experience with a troubling message about the use of deadly force by remote control and the Friction Quartet brought this challenging vision to a masterful realization.
The world premiere of Hagiography (2015) by Isaac Schankler followed the intermission. Hagiography is a form of historical biography, usually of a monarch or Christian saint, where the less attractive aspects of the subject are glossed over in favor of pleasant stories that highlight good works and accomplishments. In this piece, the Friction Quartet was accompanied by electronics, and this supplied the hagiographic element. Hagiography opened with a complex, swirling ebb and flow of sound that surged like a restless tide. There was a choppy, rhythmic feel that was busy, but always engaging to the ear. As the piece progressed, stretches of dissonance would creep in, never alienating, but clearly noticeable – only to be replaced by more consonant passages reinforced by the electronics.
The texture and pace were consistent throughout, like a fast-flowing stream full of rapid gestures. Hagiography was true to its form – at times there was a roughness and tension in strong tutti passages, but these were invariably superseded by some really lovely harmonies and soft colors. The blend of acoustic instruments and electronics was seamless and well-balanced, perfectly fitted to the intentions of this piece. Although fast-moving and often complex in character, this is a well-structured and skillfully crafted piece with all the details precisely under control. Hagiography offers hope that the good we do can outlive our failings.
Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites (2010) was next, an arrangement of the music of Skrillex by Friction cellist Doug Machiz. This began with an active, busy feel that bounced pleasantly along until a sharply dissonant chord suddenly changes the entire direction and feel from ‘nice sprite’ to ‘scary monster’. After a few bars of moderately frightful music, the nice sprite regained control and a lovely melody emerged against artful counterpoint. As the piece proceeds, the music passes back and forth between scary and nice, although scary never approaches the truly frightening.. At several points, while in monster mode, the stomping of the players feet in unison added a clever accent to the proceedings. There is an exotic, almost Asian feel to this that portrays what could be the good and the evil characters of some ancient folk tale. Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites is an accessible and engaging work that achieves a charming intensity when realized through the unique capabilities of this quartet.
The concert concluded with another Doug Machiz arrangement, this time Where Are Ü Now (2015) by Jack Ü and Justin Bieber. This has a formal, almost courtly sensibility at times, but also includes a strong beat and other identifiable pop influences. Just a few minutes in length, but with some nicely complex passages and strong harmonies, Where Are Ü Now has an upbeat optimism and familiar feel that makes this piece a favorite when the Friction Quartet plays before younger audiences.
This concert of string quartet music combined with electronics was well-balanced – the electronics never dominated by raw power or sheer volume – and the equal partnership with the strings made the combination all the more effective.
The next People Inside Electronics concert is at 8:00 PM April 2, 2016 at the Neighborhood Church and will feature the Southland Ensemble with a live performance of Rain Forest IV by David Tudor as well as the world premiere of a new composition by Carolyn Chen.
Photos by Adam Borecki