Following the Accordant Commons in this 2016 season of Microfest is the Isaura String Quartet, with “Slightly Irregular Tuning: Another adventure in microtonal music offered as part of this quintessential Los Angeles festival.” The theme of this program was Just intonation. Today, the trending intonation is equal temperament, in which every step is exactly the same distance as the next. Microtonality, in brief, means using the areas around and between those spaces. Just Intonation stems from the overtone series, the sounds you get blowing progressively harder over a coke bottle (or the opening of Thus spake Zarathustra). It is the grandfather of our modern tuning, and so does not sound foreign but a keen ear will notice the difference. The Isaura String Quartet promotes both traditional and contemporary chamber music through live performance, workshops, and collaborative projects with composers and interdisciplinary artists. If any quartet is the perfect team to tackle alternate intonation, it’s these fantastic four ladies.
The evening kicked off with Kraig Grady’s Chippewayan Echoes. He explains in the program notes that he has not attempted to reproduce an authentic historical rendition of Chippewan songs, but rather has sought an emphasis on their melodic qualities of vocal song, translated onto strings. The effect was striking. It began like wailing, in canon, at a carefully measured tempo. The tempo never swayed, and the notes marched forward at quarter and eighth note speeds. The notes wandered and explored the space, never dissonant but always just missing each other. Some sections sounded like Ralph Vaughn-Williams, others like your archetypical Western showdown, and everything in between. After several meditative minutes, the four instruments finally converged and greeted each other, and the piece concluded on a single, pure high note.
Tread Softly by Andrew McIntosh was written as a gift for the ISQ mere months ago. What started out as a chorale became a song with speech-like rhythms as if reciting the W.B. Yeats poem from which the phrase originates. The first ten seconds of the work hint at the chorale beginnings, and quickly melted into the song. The instruments swell together and fall apart, and chords sink and bend away from each other. The middle was call and answer in whispering strings, like kids at a slumber party pretending to be asleep. That faded away like a waking dream, and two lines appeared: the see-sawing cello and viola and the piping sustaining and bending violins. If listening to the music somehow failed to transport you to a secret garden, the extravagant bowing of the performers would hypnotize you instead. These evocations and metaphors of dreams and sleep are no accidents; the poem suggests that, having no worldly rugs to line the floor, he provides his dreams instead, a sentiment any artist and composer (or strapped graduate student) will understand.
John Luther Adams, the environmentally conscious composer, is becoming a household composer name, not to be confused with John Adams the minimalist composer (nor the second POTUS). His The Wind in High Places is a homage to his friend Gordon Wright, who loved Alaska and music as much as Adams. Inspired by Aeolian harps, instruments that draw their musical directly from the wind, the performers may not stop the strings on their instruments; everything is natural harmonics, the quintessential Just Intonation. Three movements unfolded gently rolling and steadily pulsing music. The first movement was a calm ocean, the second was a summer zephyr, and the third was Sisyphus pushing his stone and reaching a little higher every time but never reaching the zenith. Other flowery metaphors I came up with included: lying on a sailboat in summer, watching a sunset on a hill, drifting on a loose flower petal. I hold John Luther Adams’ music in high esteem, and this performance from Isaura confirmed that.
Following a short intermission, the audience geared themselves up for the final piece of the night. Gloria Coates’s String Quartet No. 9 premiered in Germany almost exactly nine years ago. This was the most technically challenging piece of the night, implementing extended techniques like col legno, bowing behind the bridge, and drumming on the body of the instrument. The first movement is a mirror canon, separated by a glissando canon that comes across as a quasi-shepherd tone (the aural illusion that a sound is constantly rising or falling, likened to a barbershop pole stripe). The second movement was, as Coates describes, the more experimental one. It too has elements of the mirror canon, taking a motive and turning it backwards or upside down. The performers had to throw themselves into the music to keep up with the composer’s demanding technical challenges, and the audience was utterly spellbound.
And thus concluded my whirling introduction the Isaura String Quartet. As the 2016 season comes to an end, I look forward to what both MicroFest and Isaura will bring us in the future.