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.
The 69th Ojai Music Festival continued late Saturday night, June 13, 2015, with the West Coast premiere of Become River by John Luther Adams as performed by ICE and Renga and conducted by Steven Schick. The Libby Bowl was filled for the 10:30 PM starting time with an energetic crowd on hand to hear two pieces, capping off the third full day of the festival.
Become River begins with an almost inaudibly high, thin pitch from bowed percussion that gradually builds in volume. The violins join in, playing their highest notes and starting a repeating phrase that is doubled by light bell-like sounds. One can almost imagine a small rivulet forming in a high meadow, winding its way down hill joining with others as it heads toward the sea. The flutes enter, adding volume and body to the small stream of sound, and with the clarinet entrance there is a markedly substantial feel. The orchestration in this performance was larger than, say, a chamber group, but smaller than a standard symphony – each of the horn, string, woodwind and percussion sections were represented, but in modest proportions.
Each succeeding entrance added to the harmonic richness, and the sound grew in volume and density with the repeating phrases gathering momentum. The beat was straightforward and the tempo relaxed but purposeful. Midway through, a certain amount of syncopation could be heard in the phrasing and this effectively served to shape the texture of the sound so that it very much resembled a flowing river – always full of motion, running waves and swells. As the trumpets and low brass entered, a noticeable sense of power was added and by the time the lower strings were heard there was a full, majestic feeling in the sound that nicely evoked the image of a large river approaching the sea. There was never any sense of anger or menace in this strength, however. Typical of Adam’s treatment of nature, there was a sense of peacefulness and cordial calm, an appropriate reminder that we would do best to live in harmony with a welcoming earth. As the piece concluded – and it seemed all too short – there was enthusiastic applause from the audience as John Luther Adams, Steven Schick and the musicians took their bows. Along with Become Ocean, Become River is now the second in a series of milestone works by John Luther Adams on the relationship of nature to humanity.
The second piece of the evening was the iconic Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland, commissioned in 1942 by Martha Graham as a ballet and subsequently arranged in 1945 as an orchestral suite. Most listeners are familiar with the muscular symphonic adaptation of this piece, but for this performance The International Contemporary Ensemble played the lesser known the chamber orchestra version consisting of a double string quartet, string bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon and piano. This proved to be a revelation – the themes, harmonies and delicate structures of this piece came through with an amazing transparency, precisely preserving all the subtle details that are often swallowed up in the full symphonic version. The playing could not have been better – the ensemble was very tight, carefully balanced and pitch perfect in the cool night air. The woodwinds especially stood out, carefully crafting the quiet motifs and playing together seamlessly. The Libby Bowl sound system contributed as well – all of the subtleties and nuances in the playing were faithfully preserved. Those who stayed late to listen to Appalachian Spring were rewarded with luminous performance and a beautiful new way to understand Copland’s classic of American music.
Kate Hatmaker, violin, also appeared with ICE on Appalachian Spring.
On the off chance that you hadn’t heard yet, this past weekend’s Ojai Festival was a resounding success. Here’s some cool stuff about it:
If you find anything else cool posted about the festival, please leave it in the comments. Thanks!