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Review: String Quartets at the wulf

On Friday, January 8, 2015 String Quartets, a concert of new music, was presented at the wulf in downtown Los Angeles. A capacity crowd turned out to hear two new pieces composed by Aaron Foster Bresley and Luke Martin.

The first piece on the program was barrier – bend/erect, by Aaron Foster Bresley. The players were situated in the four corners of the performance space and the sound filled the room, coming at the listener from all directions. The piece began with a rough, scratchy sound from each player; distortion produced by applying extra bow pressure on certain strings.  At the same time, more familiar pitches and tones could be heard coming from strings bowed conventionally. The overall texture was very rough and mostly unchanging, and yet the tones that fought their way through the scratchy distortion served to focus the concentration of the listener. The brain worked on these tonal fragments to fashion virtual melodies, and after a few minutes the piece acquired its own musical syntax and vocabulary.

The score for barrier – bend/erect runs to about a dozen pages for each player, with each staff line showing the strings to be played with distortion and those to be heard as pitches. A stopwatch timer was placed on each music stand, and the pages were played for a certain duration before moving on. The players randomize the score pages prior to the start of the piece so that each performance becomes a unique experience. The various instruments entered or went tacet in changing combinations as the score required, providing some dynamic changes – but the consistency of the texture was remarkable given the intonation specified. Barrier – bend/erect is a deceptively simple piece that rewards the careful listener with an impressive scope of expression in the absence of conventional musical landmarks.

After a short intermission, three sections residues by Luke Martin were heard. Residues is a collection of five graphic scores for string quartet recorded in January of 2015 and there were lines of associated poetry included in the program. The players assumed a more conventional seating arrangement for this, clustered together in the center of the space. Movement 1, remembrances, began with a series of soft, airy sounds produced by a continuous feathering motion of the bows on the strings. This was very quiet and carefully played by the quartet, just at the edge of intonation and audibility. A few bursts solitary higher notes were heard at times coming from the violin, and these stood out clearly against the pianissimo background. The evocative power of this simple combination was notable – taking the listener deep into a forest, a slight breeze rustling the trees and the occasional bird call breaking the silence.

Movement 3 of residues followed and began with low tones in the cello and quiet tones in the violin that produced an air of mystery mixed with tension. The players began whispering, and although unintelligible, this added to cryptic feeling. The dynamic was a bit louder than the first movement, if still on the quiet side, and the tension increased to include a sense of menace as the piece progressed. There were stretches of complete silence at times – on one occasion this continued for what seemed like several minutes, building an intense curiosity in the audience. When the whispering and playing finally resumed, it was as if we observing some strange and secret ritual.

Movement 5, titled unfoldings, consisted of a sustained tutti chord lacking in any sort of beat or rhythm. The players kept this tightly under control, producing an impressively steady sound. Despite the consistent texture, the feeling in this piece was unsettled and apprehensive – like hearing a distant siren. At times the players sang long vocal pitches, adding to the anxious feel. Although there is little obvious variation in unfoldings, the artfully understated changes in tonal color effectively held the interest of the listener.

Residues is a remarkable exploration of the limits of musical perception; its quiet passages and subtle textures creating a space for the mind to focus and the sound to inform.

The performers for this concert were:

Jonathan Tang – violin
Yvette Holtzwarth – violin
Joy Yi – viola
Thea Mesirow – cello

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