Quadrants -- Modern String Quartets. INCONTRERA: Limbic Breath (2007; rev. 2011). CUNNINGHAM: String Quartet No. 5 (1987). BEELER: Quartet 2000. String Quartet No. 2. GRAHN: The Timeless Lines of Time. THOMSON: String Quartet No. 1 (1931).
Boston String Quartet; New England String Quartet; Moravian Philharmonic Chamber Players/Vit Muzik; Boston Composers String Quartet.
Navona NV5883 TT: 65:26.

Four strings and four strings. Mozart and Beethoven ruined the string quartet for other composers. The genre began in social music-making, a nice way to spend one's time with three other people. Beethoven especially turned the string quartet into an instrument for introspection and spiritual meditation. Even today, many composers feel the pressure to produce the musical equivalent of the Book of Job. On the other hand, the string quartet has become the prestige genre of chamber music, and producing a great one a goal for the ambitious writer. However, some modernists began to shake up things, at least a little, and made various attempts to re-imagine the string quartet, one reason why new string quartets interest me, even before I hear them.

This CD contains mostly new work. Like most collections, this one's a mixed bag. Wonderful pieces mix with the not-so-wonderful. However, I should say up front nothing's badly-written. My judgment stems from the fit between the compositional or psychological stance and my personality. I might as well deal first with what I don't care for.

Ulf Grahn, Swedish-born and -trained and now an American resident, gives us The Timeless Lines of Time, a cello quartet (originally for four viols). I must confess a prejudice: the more purple-poetic the title, the more my hackles rise. I had dialed my hackles to 8 before I'd even heard the piece, a 13-minute marathon that seems even longer. Forget about ideas arresting in themselves. The most interesting thing about the music is Grahn's brand of metrical modulation, where the basic pulse changes in a regular, mathematical way. The simplest example is where 6/8 (two pulses of three eighth notes) changes to 3/4 (three pulses of two), or vice versa, something that often happens in older music. Just think of the opening furiant of Dvorák's Slavonic Dances. Elliott Carter, most famously, expanded this concept after World War II. For instance, a dotted eighth note in a 4/4 measure could replace the quarter note as the new pulse or a quintuplet (a note-value divided into five; compare to triplet) or any integral subdivision of the quintuplet could become the new pulse. It can make a powerful effect, especially as a driver of the argument, but this assumes that you have a compelling argument to begin with. To me, Timeless demonstrates mere compositional virtuosity, by itself not all that interesting to me, and raises the question why rehash Carter. Furthermore, Grahn doesn't do enough to brighten the texture. Four cellos in their mid-to-low registers easily murk things up. The ensemble reminds me of a brontosaurus trying to free itself from deep, deep mud.

Born in the Thirties, Michael Cunningham (not the novelist) went to Wayne State University, The University of Michigan, and Indiana University. I have a theory, far from infallible, about why composers choose certain styles: they tend to at least start in the styles prevalent when they began a serious interest -- usually 13 through their early twenties -- in writing music. As Aristotle pointed out, art is usually mimetic. I remember a dinner in which several major American artists -- writers, painters, theater people (don't ask me what I was doing there, other than enjoying exceptional, thoroughly unearned good luck) talked about how they started. Almost every one of them cited a particular work they admired and said they wanted to make something like that. In Cunningham's case, serialism had begun to spread, mainly in the academy, but also in recording. Cunningham's fifth quartet sounds much like what Austro-Germans did from the late Teens through the Thirties. Indeed, had I been listening "blind," I would have thought some Schoenberg or Berg or Toch student had written it. The quartet is not a serial piece, but it does favor certain thematic shapes. Despite the movement titles -- "Zestful," "Languid," "Spirited" -- the emotional atmosphere is rather sour, much like German Expressionism or French film noir. It moves better than the Grahn but for me never really catches fire. Furthermore, I worry that it tries to cultivate ground already worked by masters decades ago. Why compete?

Alan Beeler taught for forty years at several colleges and universities. While aware of whatever hot trend composers momentarily chased, he managed to put his own spin on it. His music belongs to him, not to a crowd. Quartet 2000 presents a theme with three variations. The theme itself breaks into sub-motives, so the variations can work with any one of those in any order they choose. It begins with an introduction of each instrument presenting fifths in double-stops and ends with a quiet variant of that intro. I admire the clean writing: one hears a large amount of "white space" in the score, all the better for the listener to grasp the rhetorical structure. The quartet stops and starts quite a bit, a particularly dangerous strategy. Usually one encounters such a phenomenon in a novice composer unsuccessfully trying to get from A to B and then giving up and just plopping down B. Here the stops and restarts are beautifully laid out. The ideas interest me in themselves. Their working-out becomes lagniappe.

The super-concentrated String Quartet No. 2 has four movements and runs a total of seven-and-a-half minutes. The first movement begins with the same sort of gesture as the introduction to Quartet 2000: rising and falling double-stops distributed among the four instruments, in fifths and in fourths. After this, one hears a few measures of rising half-steps, again distributed among all the players. The development, such as it is (the entire movement takes up just 42 measures and lasts slightly under two minutes), concerns itself with the opening idea. Just before the finish, we hear the semitones again before ending on the double-stops. The andante second movement opens with a melody in the viola which Beeler immediately breaks up and distributes among other instruments. Indeed, practically the whole movement proceeds according to this principle. Rarely do more than two instruments play at a time -- again, lots of white space, something that can be said of the entire quartet. It made me imagine a tonal Webern. A very beautiful movement. The 9/8 scherzo (with a few 6/8 measures thrown in) ends in under a minute. Again, fragmented lines build up to a full statement which lasts about three measures and which comes to a full stop before anyone has a chance to settle into it. Beeler cites Bartók as an influence, but I don't really hear it, which means that he has completely absorbed the lessons Bartók taught him and turned them to his own account. The finale, marked "Largo," starts with a wedge idea -- unison in two voices opening out to wider intervals as one voice rises and the other falls. All of its material comes from the previous movements, this time reduced to the most basic form. The austerity of the texture (often just a single line) lends a retrospective tenderness to the music, as if one recalled old friends. For me, Beeler has re-imagined what a string quartet can be. To pull it off, inspiration has to run at a white heat and one's technical game must be sharp. I don't see other composers rushing to try it, since even many good and great ones slip into habit from time to time. This kind of piece won't tolerate running on automatic.

My favorite of the new pieces is Marie Incontrera's Limbic Breath, mainly because it's the most fun and makes no excuses for being so. "Limbic" pertains to the border between two different states -- for example, hypnogogia, that state between waking and sleep. Incontrera explains the title as the kind of deep breathing that comes with meditation. Based in Brooklyn, NY, she is among other things a heavy-metal pianist, although heavy metal doesn't enter into this score -- at least, not that I can hear. I do hear in spades a heavy Latin-American rhythmic component which puts me in mind of Ginastera. Indeed, the score seems a study in syncopation, cross-rhythm, and mixed meters. You get the impression that seldom do any two instruments have the same rhythm at a particular measure. The form is a simple A-B-A: two "rockin'" sections (at one point the composer even instructs the players to "rock!") sandwich a meditative one. The harmonies are based mainly on fourths and fifths, rather than on the usual thirds and sixths, so the texture remains quite open, despite the competing rhythms. Another neat feature to me is Incontrera's embrace of unisons and octaves in the harmony. I think most postwar composers would want to give four players four different notes. Incontrera's resistance to this particular temptation adds to ensemble clarity and gives the music an exciting roughness, since at least some of those octaves and unisons will surprise the snot out a listener. Rock out, dude!

The joker in the pack, Virgil Thomson's String Quartet No. 1, may throw even some of the composer's fans. The harmonies are neither the usual dominant-tonic simplicities familiar to listeners of Thomson's Gertrude Stein settings nor the faux-naïve use of American folk idioms, and formally the work presents a conventional face -- four movements (allegro moderato, adagio, scherzo, and a mostly presto finale). Yet the quartet in many ways subverts expectations. Like Beeler, Thomson re-imagines what a string quartet can be.

The Quartet contains few themes as such. Instead, Thomson lays out mosaics from a few basic motifs. The little tiles can follow one another in many orders, so that you hear not a theme repeated, but tunes that carry recognizable, previously-recalled gestures. In the conventional quartet, the first movement usually takes on sonata form. With Thomson's non-repeating technique, this isn't really possible, since sonata depends, among other things, on repeatable units larger than the composer's idea-atoms. Still, Thomson creates a cohesive movement.

The adagio second movement moves like a funeral march. The part-writing is absolutely gorgeous. A few Baroque figures lightly touch the music. The idiom, generally speaking, is not all that chromatic, although passages filled with semitone clashes do ratchet up the emotional heat. Again, the music does not repeat.

The scherzo, unusually, assumes the habit of a waltz. Thomson sets you up to expect regular phrases and then throws in extra measures, which signal a new direction in musical thought. Once more, the composer writes non-repeating music. Classical forms, not just sonata, depend on repeated ideas, varied to be sure, but with enough connection to earlier cells so that the listener can discern subsections and general patterns. So you won't, for example, find the tripartite form of scherzo-trio-scherzo in this movement. In a way, Thomson gives you continual development.

Things change in the finale, a slow introduction leading to a classical rondo. As you know, a rondo alternates a primary idea with subsidiary ones, so the form demands that at least the main theme must repeat. The opening largo sings simply beautifully. It demonstrates why people rate Thomson so highly as a songwriter. The rondo breaks in abruptly -- a presto that moves with Mendelssohnian lightness and a kind of manic loopiness. Thomson throws in much slower episodes -- abruptly, of course, with the kind of wrench one associates with jamming on the car brakes -- and at one point a fragment of "The Bear Went over the Mountain," a hit on the composer's jukebox. All in all, a delightful though deeply eccentric score.

Navona doesn't skimp. The performances are more than professional. You can take things like intonation, ensemble, and even tone for granted. The number of fine string quartets in New England amazes me, mainly because I remember the old days, when performances of new music added up to little more than game tries. Each of these ensembles get behind the notes to a musical intention, and in really good sound, too -- another improvement on the bad old days. By using an "enhanced-content" disc, Navona also provides extras. Once you put the disc into your compatible computer disc drive, you have access to composer bios, extended liner notes, scores, wallpaper, ring tones, and rehearsal videos. Incidentally, as far as I can tell, this disc contains the only currently-available recording of the Thomson String Quartet No. 1. I used to have a performance on a CRI LP, but that got destroyed in a flood, along with the rest of my LP collection. Nevertheless, the current Boston Composers quartet improves on that earlier recording in every way.

S.G.S. (July 2014)