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
This Saturday evening People Inside Electronics bring San Francisco’s Friction Quartet to LA for a program of works by Ian Dicke, Adam Cuthbert, Missy Mazzoli, Skrillex, Diplo, and PIE director Isaac Schankler. Tickets and more info are available at peopleinsideelectronics.com/friction-quartet.
Ahead of the show, Isaac has had a chance to sit down with the quartet’s cellist, Doug Machiz, for an interview.
How did Friction Quartet form? What’s the history of the group?
Kevin and I were working on Philip Glass’ third quartet at the Zephyr Chamber Music Festival in the Italian Alps. The experience was incredibly moving and Kevin and I really enjoyed working on this non-traditional classical music together. I had recently had my first experience playing contemporary classical music and I found that my background in improvised music made for a smooth transition into performing music that had not been performed before. I was deciding in real time what something should sound like and that was exhilarating.
I was studying at UT Austin and became close friends with the Miro and Aeolus Quartets. There was something special and family like about their dynamic. I spontaneously decided that I could devote my life to performing string quartets that had never been played before and also that I could have Kevin as my partner in this endeavor. I also knew from being at BU with Ari from JACK quartet that this could be a viable career option. So I asked Kevin if he wanted to do this and he said he has always wanted to do this. So we decided that if I ended up in SF that we would go for it. A year later I was accepted to SF Conservatory of Music and Friction was born. Otis joined half a year after our formation and Taija joined 2 1/2 years ago. Now we have that stable familial feeling that I loved about the Miro and Aeolus Quartets and we are deciding what new string quartets can sound like.
Can you tell us a little about the program you’ll be performing?
We will be performing some of our favorite works we have commissioned that also happen to be electro-acoustic. Ian Dicke’s Unmanned was one of the first pieces we commissioned and really became a flagship piece for us. Adam Cuthbert’s Universe Explosion exists because I met Adam at the Bang on a Can Festival and played his Universe Explosion for large chamber ensemble. I loved the piece so much and we collaboratively came up with the idea to have Adam arrange it for double quartet. Isaac Schankler’s Hagiography is one of our recent commissions and this will be the world premiere. It’s a stunning, ambitious work and we can’t wait to share it. We will close the program with two of my own arrangements of music by Skrillex.
Friction Quartet is known for championing new music — was that part of the quartet’s mission from the beginning? What made you want to focus on new music, and especially commissioning new music? There’s no shortage of string quartet music already out there, after all.
As I mentioned before, the quartet formed with the intention of specializing in new music. Old music is fantastic, but it can’t possibly address what is happening in our lives and what we are feeling the way new music can. We also believe in pushing the boundaries of what sound can do. We want to share new sound worlds with people and move them in ways they never thought possible. To quote the great Living Earth Show, we want to be a “megaphone for composers” who have important things to say about the world right now.
Initially we planned to only play music written after 1900 (we couldn’t possibly exclude our favorite 20th century giants). But over the years we decided to bring the old stuff into our repertoire because it’s too good not to. Also we don’t believe in excluding any music from our possible repertoire because we would just be missing out on potentially great music and new audiences. There is something to learn from and enjoy in music of all styles and time periods.
I’m curious about your pop covers. A lot of quartets have taken stabs at covering pop music, but it seems to me there’s something special about the way you approach it, both in terms of the music you chose to cover, and the care and creativity that go into your arrangements. How do you decide what songs to cover, and what’s your thought process in terms of how to arrange them?
I try to find a balance between songs that I like and songs that are going to resonate with new audiences. All of the songs I arrange fall somewhere on that spectrum. I’m on a mission to recruit new audiences simply because I don’t want anyone to miss out on how fucking awesome classical music can be. But the arrangements are also self-serving. I want to provide extremely fun repertoire for the quartet to play and I want a creative outlet for myself as a performer of music written by other people. I’ve dabbled in free improv, jazz, electronic compositions and playing in bands. These arrangements let me explore all of my musical interests in the context of my main project.
The most amazing and unintended consequence of making these arrangements is consistently getting huge crowds of young children to go absolutely ape shit. It’s like we’re the fucking Beatles all of a sudden when we play Michael Jackson’s Thriller (check out our documentary, Friction, by Meridian Hill Pictures). And this makes no sense because Michael Jackson’s career was all but over when these kids were born. I feel confident that a lot of these kids are going to find more ways to be creative through music because of our performances. I also think some of these kids will become fans of music when they otherwise may not have.
What’s next up for the Friction Quartet? Any upcoming projects you’re particularly excited about?
After our So-Cal tour we head to NYC for a performance of a favorite commission of ours, Juiced by Brendon Randall-Myers, at Roulette. We will also make our Carnegie Hall debut as part of the Kronos Quartet Workshop performing classic and new Kronos commissions. Then we head to Seattle to shoot a video, produced by Second Inversion, of In/Exchange for Steel Pan and Quartet by Andy Akiho with Andy himself on steel pan. We have residencies at Cornish College and Western Washington University. At WWU we are premiering a new string quartet concerto by Roger Briggs. After returning to SF we have an onslaught of various awesome projects that all happen before we head back east to Detroit in June for the Shouse Institute at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival. I’m most excited about our SF Jazz debut in August with Fabian Almazan’s trio.
Tickets for the Friction Quartet show are available at peopleinsideelectronics.com/friction-quartet