String Quartets 1 & 2
Performed by Apartment House
Cold Blue Music
This was my first acquaintance with Peter Garland, who I understand has a reputation in today’s new music for being controversial and opinionated (I’ve no problem with that). He has been described as both a Minimalist and a Post-Modernist (whatever that means), but has vigorously denied any such typecasting. And properly so, for if what I hear on this CD, performed by the string quartet Apartment House with the natural spontaneity of a block party, is truly representative of the composer, than I’d have to say that Garland’s music has a beauty and a breadth of vision that transcends the sort of stuff I’d associate with the Nonesuch Records Mob (You know who I mean). I was pleasantly surprised by what I heard, and I’d like to share my impressions with you.
These two works are not string quartets in any classical sense, but only in that they are performed by a quartet of string players with a common purpose. They do, however, have the economy of design and the feeling of intimacy that we find in the best of chamber music over the past three centuries. We find here a love of richly layered, slowly moving harmonies and sweetness akin to sadness, a beauty so deep it hurts.
String Quartet No. 1, subtitled “In Praise of Poor Scholars,” takes its title from a poem by Tao”Ch’ien (365-427) that begins, “All creatures, each has a home: / The solitary cloud alone has none. / Here and there, into thin air, it vanishes: / When do you ever see its traces?” The Chinese poems of olden times were accustomed to expressing down to earth feelings in terms of fanciful concepts. The solitary cloud represents the threadbare scholar who must wander in the elusive search for a princely patron (for the modern equivalent, read “arts foundation grant” or “endowed chair”). The six movements of this work tend to have an evocative rather than a descriptive purpose: Rondeau “nouveau,” Like an elegant slow dance, Back to the 14th century, To the Memory of Dane Rudhyar, Son Huasteco / A Walk in the White Place, and Like a simple Indian dance – elegant and eloquent. The music is predominately slow, with just enough variety – for instance, the alternation of plainsong and dance in the aptly named Back to the 14th century that the listener is never afflicted with monotony. Garland’s harmonies weave their own spell of peace and serenity, perhaps evoking also the immense beauty and solitude of the great American west.
Quartet No. 2, subtitled “Crazy Cloud,” is built of more diverse materials and has greater variety of tempos than its predecessor. There is considerable evocation of traditional Japanese culture, if not actual melodies or rhythms, in 1, 2 and 5 of its five movements, Sado, Mori (the blind courtesan and singer who became Ikkyu’s lover), and “From the Mountains, Returning to the City” (title of a poem by Ikkyu). The first named begins with a surge of hope from all members of the quartet, the second is a meditation tinged with a darker mood (despair, perhaps?), and the third has a rising mood, concluding with a radiant burst of happiness. Movement 3, “Sueño en Rio Grande,” the title of a song by Las Hermanas Pallida, has a south of the border flavor, calling forth lively, sensational syncopated pizzicati from the members of Apartment House. More syncopations are found in 4, Blues for Helena, though the general mood is subdued, almost overstaying its welcome before the fifth movement provides the satisfying ending hinted above.