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Music for String Quartet by Matthew Malsky

This release combines three recent program pieces by Clark University’s Matthew Malsky, performed by the Boston-based string quartet QX.

Lacan (2007) “for string quartet with electronic sounds” is Malsky’s take on a medium reified by Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988). Like Reich’s composition, Malsky’s incorporates recorded speech and is built around a historical-political program. Unlike Reich’s, though, Malsky’s is free-wheeling and whimsical (with a touch of cynicism)–successfully evoking, in his own words, “the sound of vivid dreams, inspired by a mix of half-heard news reports and other thoughts bouncing around my unconscious.” The QX Quartet keeps up admirably with a rhythmically challenging score, injecting humor into each glissando, tremolo and pizzicato.

Although the string writing is characteristically rhetorical–sometimes in a four-way conversation or debate and at other times in homophonic declamation–it rarely bears a readily apparent relation to the spoken words of the electronic track. The electronics feature snippets of political figures “posturing” (Malsky’s word) on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, interspersed with recordings from that same day in the composer’s own life. (At one point, we hear the composer talking with his children about dandelions, broccoli, and brussel spouts.) In contrast to Different Trains, whose rhythm and tonal shape is informed at every turn by spoken words, the quartet in Lacan seems to comment on or around the public and private speech without reacting to it directly. In some places, the electronics seem merely incidental to the strings. A tighter relationship between the two would have been more aesthetically satisfying, but perhaps less dream-like.

The one-movement work is an arc divided into seven sections, framed by a question and answer posed to and given by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. But don’t listen too carefully for discrete parts. The piece carries its dream conceit through to the end, playing on liminal states of wakefulness and the blending of disparate speech-influenced dreams. Twice, the strings break into an unexpected tango before morphing back into the more abstract forms that characterize the piece.

The highlight of the disc is Malsky’s Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (2009), his anachronistic accompaniment to a 1920’s silent film of the same title. You can watch it with music here, but the Malsky’s score stands alone well thanks to its quasi-minimalist construction. Several micro-motifs interact in a charming whole: Rippling water at the beginning of the film inspires a two-note oscillation; an arpeggiated triad traces the grandeur of its buildings; a driving mollosic meter (strong-strong-strong) suggesting the city’s mechanization–its locomotives and factories–but shifts into antibacchic meter (strong-strong-weak) to depict the heartbeat of Berlin’s citizens. QX renders with feeling and precision the human and mechanical elements that make this piece a success.

The disc ends with Valley of Dying Stars (2003), which Malsky describes as a “literal but wordless setting of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men.'” To this listener, the music gets too caught up in its program to succeed musically. It lacks the somewhat more self-evident structure of Lacan and the transparency of Berlin. The piece nevertheless keeps one’s attention all the way to its anticlimactic “whimper” of an ending, thanks to rich phrasing and rhetorical pathos inspired by the poem and convincingly conveyed by QX.

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