Sounds Heard: Christine Southworth–String Quartets

Purchase:

String Quartets
by Christine Southworth
(Airplane Ears Music)
Performers:
Kronos Quartet
Calder Quartet
Face the Music
Members of Gamelan Galak Tika

Being a fan of vintage early 1970s British progressive rock, especially the groups who really experimented with instrumentation and form like Gentle Giant, King Crimson, and Van der Graaf Generator, I was immediately intrigued by a disc that arrived in the mail four years ago with the portentous title Zap! Music for Van de Graaff Generator, Tesla Coils, Instruments & Voices featuring a single, hour-long composition in seven movements. At the time, its composer, Christine Southworth, was completely unknown to me, as were some of the instruments she was exploring. Since the generator (named after its inventor, American physicist Robert J. Van de Graaff) was misspelled in the name of the legendary prog band fronted by Peter Hammill (whose LPs I treasure after scouring for them in record shops from Los Angeles to Porthmadog in Wales), I never actually knew what a Van de Graaff generator was or did until I’d heard Southworth’s disc in which this mechanism originally devised to smash atoms makes its musical debut. So in addition to doing some rewarding listening to the really off the wall, out there stuff on that disc, I learned a few fascinating things during the process.

A couple of months ago, I came across a new disc devoted to her music with the immediately more readily identifiable title, String Quartets. But after hearing the truly new sound world she created on her earlier disc, I was quite sure she’d create something totally unusual despite using the most popular instrumental combination in all of chamber music. She did not disappoint!

I should point out that none of the three compositions by Southworth featured on the new CD are actually scored exclusively for string quartet. The opening piece, Super Collider, is a double quartet featuring the classic combination of two violins, viola, and cello (here performed by the Kronos Quartet) with four percussion instruments that are traditionally part of the Balinese gamelan—kempli (a single gong which is mounted horizontally), ceng-ceng (a set of cymbals), and two kendangs (which are double-sided membrane drums struck with the hands)—plus additional electronic sounds generated via MIDI through an interface with the gamelan instruments called Gamelan Elektrika. Gamelan Electrika was designed and developed by Alex Rigopulos (founder and CEO of Harmonix Music, the company that invented the video games Guitar Hero and Rock Band). It is apparently the first-ever MIDI instrument that requires an entire group to trigger its output, which alters tuning and timbres, rather than an individual; somehow fitting since a gamelan is a collective that comes together to create a unified sound. For the first 90 seconds of Super Collider, the only sound worlds that are actually colliding with one another are the physical and virtual gamelans, but the real “super” collision ultimately takes place when the string quartet finally enters—the fixed-pitch short-decay percussion clacks of the live gamelan players contrasting with the longer sliding tones of the strings and the electronic environment, which is capable of both paradigms and many others.

After the poly-timbral world of Super Collider, where it is often difficult to discern which instruments are producing which sounds, Honey Flyers initially feels like a return to a comfort zone in its extremely idiomatic embrace of the language of the conventional string quartet. The music is played passionately by the Calder Quartet. But this doesn’t last over the course of its three movements in which the sounds of “honey flyers”—bees—gradually grow more and more prominent. At first while I was listening to the second movement, which opens with unaccompanied bee sounds, I was worried that I was about to be stung. I hate bugs and it is, after all, summer in the city. In the final movement, the sounds of the bees and the quartets seem totally integrated with one another which is simultaneously a wonderful sonic feat and somewhat creepy—remember, I hate bugs!

The final piece of the disc, Volcano, in addition to the string quartet immediately adds sounds of an eruption to the mix, prefaced by the quartet intoning the word “volcano.” Then a piano enters for some initially very propulsive music that gradually explores a variety of tempos and moods. Toward the end, there is additional rhythmic punctuation from a percussionist. (The pianist and percussionist for this performance are one and the same.) Eventually the piano makes a return appearance for the music’s final climactic—sorry, pun intended—eruption.

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