Skip to content

Review: Cold Blue Music + Formalist Quartet at Monk Space

Monk Space, in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles was the venue for a concert titled Crazy Quilt, string music from the Cold Blue recording label as performed by the Formalist Quartet. A nice midweek crowd turned out on March 10, 2015 – Crazy Quilt being part of the monthly Tuesdays@Monkspace series of new music concerts.

The Formalist Quartet

The Formalist Quartet

Hymn of Change (2010) by David Rosenboom was first, in an arrangement by Andrew Tholl, one of the violinists in the Formalist Quartet. This piece derives from an earlier work by Rosenboom, as he writes in the program notes: “In my 1998 work for piano, Bell Solaris- the Sun Rings Like a Bell, initiating waves of influence that traverse, shape, and create space, time and life – twelve movements emerged from subtle and grand transformations of the Hymn of Change, which I had written earlier in 1992. Some years later, after hearing Bell, Andrew Tholl was inspired to arrange the Hymn, a kind of slow, gospel waltz, for string quartet.” The result of Andrew’s efforts is a warm, traditional sound with full four part harmony and good balance that perfectly recalls the sunny days of late-19th century Americana. Although not a long piece, the careful playing of the Formalist Quartet and accommodating acoustics of Monk Space combined to bring Hymn of Change into a vivid realization that brought complete tonal satisfaction.

Music for Airport Furniture (2011) by Stephen Whittington was next, and this was a US premiere. An Australian musician with a long history of involvement with contemporary composers, Whittington gave the first performances in Australia of music by Christian Wolff, Terry Riley, James Tenney, Peter Garland, Alan Hovhaness and Morton Feldman – among many others. Whittington’s extensive travels were the inspiration for Music for Airport Furniture – which owes far more to Erik Satie than to Brian Eno. This is not music to fill public spaces but rather tailored for the interior of the human heart. Whittington writes: “I was interested in the airport departure lounge as an arena for human emotions – boredom, apprehension, hope, despair, loneliness, the tenderness of farewells – all taking place within a bland, often desolate space.”

Music for Airport Furniture consists of a series of long sustained phrases, lush and warm, broken only by the occasional pizzicato arpeggio in the cello. The sweet sadness of farewell is slowly released with a distant, introspective feel. The string quartet is the perfect ensemble for this music. The delicate texture was nicely realized by the Formalist Quartet who kept the long, quiet passages interesting by infusing just the right amount of energy while at the same time carefully controlling the dynamics. The brick wall acoustics of Monk Space allowed the intimate and heartfelt sensibility of this piece to reach all parts of the audience. Music for Airport Furniture slowly unpacks all the emotions of the lonely traveler waiting for an airline boarding call.

After an intermission the concert concluded with a world premiere – String Quartet No. 4 Crazy Quilt (2014), by Peter Garland. Crazy Quilt is based on an earlier work for solo cello – Out of the Blue – written the year before, which consisted of a rising, then descending arc of 44 pitches. The other instruments of a string quartet were then added to this foundation to increase the timbrel possibilities. As Garland writes, “I chose different basic time units: with the cello maintaining its 60-second unit, the viola uses a 75 second unit, violin 2 uses a 90 second unit; and violin 1 uses two different units – first a 45 second one, then shifting to a 30 second unit, and finally going back to 45 seconds. The common denominator for all these is that they add up evenly to 45 minutes (2700 seconds). I.e. what starts together, ends together…” For this performance page turners were employed as the players were continuously engaged in sounding the long, sustained tones called for in the score.

The beginning of Crazy Quilt is a quiet, sustained chord in the lower registers of each instrument. The bowing by the players was, of necessity, achingly slow – but the sound produced was warm and full. As the time units rolled by, the chord would change slightly, – generally rising in pitch – but very slowly and deliberately. Each change of tone by a player would reveal an entirely new feeling in the sound, sometimes adding tension or anxiety and sometimes resolving into mellowness and warmth. There was no beat per se; the players had to concentrate and be in good communication as each was working to a different time unit. Overall the effect was very engaging – like watching a slow-motion kaleidoscope. In the lower registers the feelings were mostly smooth and reassuring, but as the pitches increased the more stressful and anxious sensations predominated. At the very top of the arc the violins soared above the rest of the ensemble – sometimes heroically and sometimes with great angst – but always bringing another interesting variation to the sound. As the piece floated gently downward in pitch, the chords seemed to become gradually more consonant and consoling. The familiarity and harmonic cohesion in the middle registers added to the feeling of solace, and by the conclusion of this piece there was a comforting sense of return.

Crazy Quilt is an ambitious work, attempting as it does, to conjure so many different colors and feelings from the sound. It is also a difficult piece to play given the different time units and sustained pitches required – with no conventional tempo or harmonic progressions to follow. Despite these challenges, the Formalist Quartet brought this piece fully alive so that the vision of Peter Garland was fully articulated.

The Formalist Quartet is:
Andrew Tholl, violin
Mark Menzies, violin/viola
Andrew McIntosh, violin/viola
Ashley Walters, cello

The next concert at presented by Tuesdays at Monk Space will be on Saturday, March 21, 2015 at 8:00 PM at Villa Aurora, featuring The Varied Trio (Yuri Inoo, Aron Kallay, and Shalini Vijayan). Music of Lou Harrison, Bill Alves and others will be performed.

 

%d bloggers like this: