Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

Growing up in southern Illinois, where the blues belt buckled over the country music circuit, David Soldier was as familiar with Chet Atkins and Mel Tillis as he was Muddy Waters and B.B. King. When he moved to New York in 1981 to attend Columbia University his broad tastes literally paid off: Soldier paid for his Ph.D in neuroanatomy by playing in nearly 100 different bands — punk and salsa one week, an off-Broadway pit band the next.

Switching between styles, though, led to a compositional voice that remained solid even when the genre turned on a dime. “I was reaching this level of frustration playing in the clubs,” he says. “People like Elliott Sharp and John Zorn were doing a lot of improvising, and even the people who were reading would throw the arrangements out the window as soon as we’d perform.”

For Soldier, whose formal training as a composer came from Otto Luening, the solution to balancing his plethora of popular idioms came not from the latest sounds, but from consciously looking backward. “I’d always loved the string quartet from Haydn’s tradition,” he says, “And besides that, I thought the anachronism would be really funny.” This was in 1984, before the Kronos Quartet had gotten much public exposure. For the first year or so, he says, people realized that it was supposed to be a joke; after Kronos, the idea wasn’t so funny anymore.

Ironically, Soldier himself found that writing for string quartet was a natural fit. A violinist himself, he knew how to voice each line idiomatically for the instrument. And strings proved to be a good instrumental combination to recreate a Delta blues, provided you have players who understand the style.

“A lot of these people were really good,” he says, “but you’d either have people who could read well had no background in any other music, or they had a strong voice that made everything sound the same.”

So that, and the willingness to perform with a drummer, has led a series of string players through the learning curve that is the Soldier String Quartet, where playing blues records is common occurrence in rehearsal. In the past 14 years, the quartet has played not only Soldier’s music, but nearly 100 premieres including works by Elliott Sharp, John Cale, Iannis Xenakis and Alois Hába.

“All those composers come from a similar desire to want to expand, rather than sit on a standard repertoire,” says Soldier. “In that way Elliott Sharp and Xenakis are quite similar. Both share an interest in polyrhythms and microtonality and a genuine musical subtlety, even if the way they express them is entirely different.”

From Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles
by Ken Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox

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