String Quartet No. 2
Date Completed: Fall '01
Part of Series: none
Recording: Track 8 on
Fracture: The Music of Pat Muchmore
Performed by: Jean Cook, Hubert Chen (violins), Philippa Thompson (viola), Loren Dempster (cello)
OK, I don't want to blow your mind too much, so I'll go slowly. This piece was written for a "quartet" (4) of "string" players (2 violin, viola, cello) and I have used Roman characters to spell out the English words for "String" and "Quartet." Although the characters "No." resemble the word of negation in English, in this case I'm using a period after the letters to indicate an abbreviation for the word "Number." As this was the second piece I'd written for this particular concatenation of instruments I used a common symbol for the cardinal number "two" even though the ordinal number "second" is more appropriate. This is in deference to a common shorthand in Western music.
Seriously, the use of such a generic title is obviously noteworthy given my other pieces. I chose it because, in a way, the piece is about the act of composition itself. Somehow it seemed appropriate to give it a default title, something that called to mind the myriad other works with the same title and instrumentation dating back for a few centuries. It makes sense in my head, but I find it hard to explain my meaning.
This piece is about the process of composition itself. It begins with a haze of harmonics, intended to evoke a pre-musical void out of which the discombobulated elements of the piece slowly construct themselves. A falling two-note leap (a major sixth) interacts with occassional snippets of a scale until a sudden violent interruption. This alternation continues until a full (though simply accompanied) version of the melody emerges (at around 4'06" on the Fracture CD) dispelling the fog. This melody is pretty strongly reminiscent of the Chrysalis melody that pervades a lot of my later music including other tracks on the album.
Eventually, the music devolves into an extended version of the primal interruptions from earlier, and the violins have brutal solos raging against their own incoherence. There are occassional interruptions by a completely different style, as there were before, but now it is the gentle and harmonious music functioning as interloper. The frenzy builds until the climax (circa 10'38") where the full melody is finally heard in full-throated glory, culminating in a powerful A Major chord, but then almost immediately dissolving back into incoherence and, eventually, the hazy void from which the piece emerged.
This piece is by far the earliest on the record, and showcases my first forays into a number of looser and semi-aleatoric compositional techniques. The piece was largely written while I was studying with John Corigliano, and these techniques were some of the most important things I learned from him. In particular, he taught me to allow rhythmic events to be notated—and thus performed—relatively rather then prescriptively. It was like a bolt of lightning when he first brought this up.
I was writing the primal, violent music of the middle of the song, and I wanted the brutal violin solos to sound like they were in a different tempo, a different world, than the angry viola/cello ostinato beneath them. I was notating complex rhythms to give this impression (not unlike a simple version of a lot of Elliot Carter's work, though I wasn't terribly aware of this at the time). He asked me whether I cared that everything line up the same way everytime, and I realized I didn't (unlike Carter's work), and he asked "So why don't you just tell the bottom instruments to keep repeating the pattern and simply instruct the violins to play at a slightly faster tempo?" It seems terribly obvious to me now, but it honestly hadn't ever occurred to me. I immediately rewrote vast chunks of the piece to take advantage of these new ideas, saving straightforward rhythm and meter for the parts of the work that were supposed to sound more fully "composed."
I had just moved from Oklahoma to New York to begin my doctoral studies, and the ensuing confusion, combined with Corigliano's frustration with my inability to write better melodies, put me into something of a writer's block. It reminded me of the "Great Sleep" that the Jack Burden character from All the King's Men refers to. I think this is part of what inspired the idea to let the piece be about the compositional process, since I was, necessarily, particularly analytically concerned with precisely that world. Rather than try to write a full and coherent piece in my most comfortable style, I let the incomplete fragments and ideas from my initial sketches simply coexist and occassionally interrupt each other. The resulting sense of partial fragmentation and genre confusion sounds to me like a predecessor to the outright fractures and broken music that has become a primary aspect of my music ever since.
COMING SOON (maybe)