All in the Family

Recently I’ve agreed to take on an interesting commission. Although I’ll be collaborating with some world-class players, this is not primarily what distinguishes the endeavor; rather, it’s the event the commission will commemorate—the wedding anniversary of some musical friends—that surely exceeds in importance any of the other sundry and pompous circumstances for which new music is commissioned.

This project came about through a peculiarly touching turn of happenstance: last April, the Jupiter String Quartet gave the New York premiere of my new quartet Ramshackle Songs at Alice Tully Hall, and several relatives of the Jupiters were present. The Jupiter Quartet itself has in interesting familial dynamic: cellist Dan McDonough is married to violinist Meg, whose sister Liz also plays viola in the group. Emerson Quartet cellist David Finckel prefaced the Jupiters’ Alice Tully concert program by noting that the quartet’s professional bio begins not with a list of awards and accomplishments, but instead with a gesture to the family, friends, and mentors who helped shape the quartet’s development.

With all this familial dynamic, add the fact that violinist Meg’s brother J plays in another successful quartet, the Jasper Quartet, and that these siblings also share an older brother who plays the cello. So I thought it a great idea (and a great honor) when Meg contacted me about working on a new piece to commemorate her parents 40th wedding anniversary; they had been in attendance at the premiere, and the fact that my colleagues’ parents would be at all interested in my music being a part of an important life event was itself a great inspiration.

As I bounced ideas back and forth with Meg and her family, several ideas began to fall into place. First, this would be a piece for all the musical siblings in the family as well as their musical spouses—seven string players in total. It was already clear that the tone of this piece had to be respectful and reverent enough without ceasing to be celebratory, even zanily joyful at times. Realizing that I needed something to keep the music from sounding too self-serious, I asked Meg if her family had any small instruments lying around, or objects which produced sounds of some significance to their household. At first this idea seemed a little bit silly, but gradually I think they realized that this might be an effective way to weave a personal and handmade feel into the piece. Current plans for the piece involve the players doubling assorted auxiliary instruments, which they are constantly alternating to provide an ever-shifting timbral backdrop with the haunting ring of the familiar.

I’m excited to see how this project develops because I know that family and recreational music-making can be a powerful tool for not only togetherness but also social change. A cellist friend of mine had just left a post as principal cellist of the Seattle Symphony and decided to form a quartet with his younger siblings to bring classical chamber music to Uganda. There they had some amazing experiences and learned a lot from the villages they visited—for one thing, Ugandans thought it by and large hilarious that Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was written down on paper by some guy who had been dead for hundreds of years. The young musicians gave food and clothes to as many people as they could, but in the end it was their music that perhaps was most appreciated.

I’ve often been fascinated with the music of Tin Pan Alley and with the golden era of recreational music-making; whether for pure recreation or for humanitarian effort, it heartens me to see that some American families still have high hopes for the role of music in their lives, and also what music might mean in the lives of others.

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