A week ago today, I spoke about my music at the Blair School of Music, as a part of their Nightcap series. At the conclusion of my talk, the audience had great questions, and then we listened to the Atlantic Ensemble play four works.
Though I spoke of a number of concerns, the central topic of my talk was the set of string quartets I am presently completing. Here’s is an excerpt:
…At the very end of his novel Invisible Cities, Calvino says “we are living in hell, and we have two choices: we can become a part of the hell around us, or we can find those things around us that are not hell, and give them a form that will allow them to endure.” I love this image, this idea that no matter how bad things get, there is a certain nobility in finding the good things and passing them on. It sparked in me a desire to explore traditional, Classical forms in a really detailed manner, to figure out what makes these forms effective or not effective for us today, what they can tell us about ourselves.
I set myself the task of writing six string quartets, each one focusing on a specific traditional form. That was back in 1998, fifteen years ago, and I’ve been working on this idea steadily since – I’m currently on the sixth and final quartet of the cycle.
One of the fascinating things about art is the way it connects the personal and the cultural, the world of experience and the world of imagination. As I look back on the fifteen years I’ve devoted to these quartets, it is clear that while I thought I was exploring traditional forms as intellectual constructs, I was also responding in a very personal and even broadly cultural way to these forms.
The first quartet focused on scherzo, which is a form that is closely associated with humor in music. The piece is in four movements: three scherzos followed by a nocturne. I wanted to use the Classical concept of scherzo as a means to explore a personal and cultural concern I had at the time, the late 1990s. I felt that I was using humor – and we as a society were using humor, frivolity – as a way of distancing ourselves from real engagement, and that though this was a comfortable stance, it wasn’t necessarily a good one.
A few years later, I wrote my second quartet, zooming in on the concept of fugue. The word fugue means, literally, flight, so I created a quartet of six fugues dealing with different aspects of flight. I was working on this piece at the same time as I was fulfilling a commission to commemorate the centennial of the first flight of the Wright Brothers, so I very much had the exhilaration of flight on my mind, this astonishing idea that humans could fantasize about the ability to fly for thousands of years – and then actually make it happen. That’s an incredibly capacity we have as a species. But this was also in the immediate wake of the September 11 attacks, so the concept of flight was also very terrifying – it was a time when it felt like boarding a plane could never be the same. The resulting piece confronts these conflicting feelings, all through the musical device of fugue.
Flash forward a couple more years, and I was ready to take on my third quartet, in which I had decided to tackle the tradition of aria. In contrast to where I was when I wrote the first quartet, I found I was unable to detach myself from that tradition, I was unable to attain any ironic distance, and instead I wrote a passionate, unapologetically romantic quartet in aria form. Again, in retrospect, it’s clear where I was coming from: I was a newlywed, and like many newlyweds I was swept up in the power of love, I was finding it very difficult to think objectively. Critic Alex Ross called the piece “unlawfully lush,” and I have to agree. In a sense, the third quartet is the least self-aware, self-conscious – and, again, that is appropriate: like most species, we humans tend to become very narrowly focused during mating season.
My fourth and fifth quartets were composed simultaneously, the fourth focusing on rondo form and the fifth on the idea of variations. Once again, what started out as explorations of tradition ended up as expressions of extramusical concerns, almost in spite of my intentions. You see, shortly after my third quartet, my wife and I had our first child, and then our second a couple of years later. The world I was living in at the time of the fourth and fifth quartets was aswarm in toddlerhood, and my music could hardly be expected to escape that influence. The fourth quartet ended up being a very joyous, playful piece. The fifth is an ode to anxiety and sleep deprivation. Those of you who have had small children will be familiar with those two poles of experience: exhilaration and exhaustion.
As I said, I’m currently working on quartet number six, in which my intention is to explore the traditional concept of fantasy. I’m deep in the process of creating it and it’s fair to say that at this point I have no idea where it is going to take me. But this again is one of the great beauties of art: we don’t tell it where to take us, we release ourselves into its custody…