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Sam Nichols Talks Refuge

Sam Nichols teaches at UC Davis. His string quartet ‘Refuge’ is on the Sequenza 21/MNMP Concert this coming Tuesday (7PM at Joe’s Pub in NYC. Did we mention it’s free?).

In 2009 the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble asked me to write a string quartet. I was happy, for a number of reasons, but mostly because they bring a tremendous amount of oomph to any project. At the time, though, I was working on another piece, a trio, that was giving me a lot of trouble. Make that: a LOT of trouble. Pounding my head against the wall trouble, breaking pencils in half trouble, putting in an accent and then taking it out again trouble. Working on this trio was taking up a lot of time, and I had blown past the deadline. Meanwhile, the deadline for the new string quartet was approaching. So, I set aside the trio—it was already late, and I seemed to be stuck—and started the quartet. I didn’t have a lot of time, about six weeks (and I usually write pretty slowly; there’s usually a fair amount of moving down blind alleys, and retracing my steps sort of thing), and so there was a certain amount of adrenaline involved: I was already mired in one stalled-out project; I really didn’t want that to snowball into an unmanageable situation, where EVERYTHING I was writing was late. Yikes.

The Left Coast were going to play Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge; they asked me to design my string quartet as a sort of companion piece to the Beethoven. This was slightly terrifying—okay, more than slightly. But I tried to ignore that, and started to work. The first thing I decided was: I really couldn’t see my way clear to writing a fugue. But I thought it might be fun to take some of the basic ideas of fugal writing, twist them around, and use that as a jumping-off point. So, for example, instead of writing a traditional contrapuntal texture, I created a blurred, out-of-focus unison line that’s been twisted and tweaked. The four instruments are sometimes playing the same tune, but are ornamenting it differently, or are playing it at slightly different speeds. This results in a rough sort of do-it-yourself canon—anything but strict—where the lines are sometimes piled up very closely, and at other times are separated from each other quite dramatically.

The title, Refuge, started out as a pun. I often use a temporary working title, and once I figure out what I’m doing, I might throw the first title away, and replace it with something better suited to the piece. So, in quickly slapping a title on my string-quartet-in-progress, I chose “refuge:” not a fugue (or “fuge,” to revert to Beethoven’s language), but a re-imagining of fugue/fuge: re-fugue, or re-fuge. And for a few weeks, I left it at that.

But as I wrote the music, a simpler interpretation of the title started to appear. The piece is very episodic: just as one musical structure is established, it’s replaced with another. It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch; an image emerges, but then it’s (sometimes quite violently) shaken up and wiped clean. So, over and over, the piece seems to move toward quieter, restful episodes: little in-between bits of music that, until they’re disrupted, offer moments of calm. This pattern, of moving through active, violent sections (including passages which seem to bristle with hostility) toward calmer havens, became one of the basic ideas of the piece. Maybe the title exerted a sort of pull on the music? Or maybe it was a coincidence. Now, two years later, I can see that writing this piece offered me a kind of refuge. It allowed me to escape from the trio I had been writing (which I eventually returned to and finished). But in a larger sense, it helped me loosen up, and find a more personal way of putting together a piece.