Sounds Heard: Aeolus Quartet—Many-Sided Music
The Aeolus Quartet, late of Austin, has been making music for several years now. They came together in 2008 in the time-honored tradition—while students at their conservatory of choice, in this case the Cleveland Institute of Music. Prize winners at the Fischoff International Chamber Music Competition and the Plowman Chamber Music competition among others, Aeolus was also the first resident graduate string quartet at the Butler School and they have recently begun studies at the University of Maryland. Before their return to the frozen Northeast, they entered the studios at UT Austin to record Many-Sided Music, an album of new works by American composers, its title taken from Leonard Bernstein’s description of the “many-sidedness” of American music. I’ve had the good fortune of hearing several of these pieces live, fresh, and new, but it’s great to hear them with the benefit of time and reflection.
Dan Visconti’s Black Bend begins with longing, gestural wails accompanied by the pizz. and pop of a lazy river. Stabs and runs fight for space, as abbreviated melodies push their way through a mosquito texture of sixteenth notes. Seemingly out of nowhere, a blues bar opens up “just around the bend,” complete with chromatic strolls to IV and back again. Guitar riffs straight out of the Robert Johnson songbook play out over pizzicato parts in the cello that nod to their string bass roots. A few choruses in, violinists Nicholas Tavani and Rachel Shapiro do their best “Devil’s Crossroad,” battling in the upper register as the violist Gregory Luce and cellist Alan Richardson trade in their bass lines for some new chordal duds. The final moments of this 12-bar blues section play no differently than the frozen time at the end of any blues tune, tremolo chords and flying riffs; everybody rocking out so much that you can almost see the cellist give the final downbeat, its only lacking elements the bass drum, cymbal hit, and leap from the drum riser that typically wraps this sort of thing up. Beyond that, the piece flows away, decelerating with just the slightest reference to the opening as the river flows around another bend.
Steven Snowden’s Appalachian Polaroids turns the Americana trajectory of the album towards the wide inland swath of the country where hills meet fiddles. Inspired by the photography of Shelby Lee Adams, Snowden begins with a haunting field recording of Shelia Kay Adams (no relation) singing “Black is the Color.” Quick and seamless integration of the quartet with the recording leads to a pentatonic celebration as the recording ends and the quartet steps to the forefront. Idiomatic double stops pop around all fourthy-fifthy in a frenetic eighth-note pattern as the folk melody makes its way from low to high strings. Sixteenths in the upper register up the ante as the longer lines find their way back to the bass, eventually dominating the competing sixteenths which lose a battle of attrition. The long pentatonic lines and harmonies of the opening material return to bring the piece to a close.
Lady Isabelle by Alexandra Bryant was written for Aeolus as a companion piece to Appalachian Polaroids. Also inspired by a field recording, Bryant uses the quartet to voice the song. Recorded here with separate microphones, the brief vocalizations give a stark, broken quality to the introductory material, a quality that is echoed in the quartet writing which doesn’t fully arrive until nearly two minutes into the piece. Shortly after this arrival we hear the first plaintive melody of the piece accompanied by arpeggiated harmonics and the breathing rise and fall of cello and viola. This dies and is replaced by double stops with glissandi on one of the strings of the cello played over a small range. Just before the halfway mark the melody returns over a newly vibrant texture which is followed by another section recalling the broken elements of the opening. A return to the cello glissando punctuated by pizzicato and wide open chords leads us to a recap of the opening material, vocalizations and all.
William Bolcom’s Three Rags for String Quartet, the oldest music on the album, matches well with the other offerings while fully embracing the characteristics of the rag. “Poltergeist” is playful while flirting with the dark side, occasional whole tone scales threatening to fully pull the piece into a modern idiom, only to turn at the last minute back to the diatonic scales that bring us home. “Graceful Ghost” is a melancholy waltz, firmly diatonic yet still nimble enough to perhaps raise a few eyebrows if it were played in the late 19th century. “Incineratorag,” however, sounds like it could be right out of the Joplin songbook, a fantastic study in the form and characteristics of that music and among the first works of its kind that Bolcom wrote.
Many-Sided Music is very well played and recorded and is extremely approachable. Populated and played by a mostly under-thirty crowd, it’s a welcome indication of the creativity and potential of Aeolus as well as that of the composers. In fact, I think that Bolcom guy has a real future.