On Tuesday, February 18, 2020, Brightwork newmusic presented the Los Angeles premiere of Separation Songs, by Matt Sargent.  A 70-minute work for two string quartets, Separation Songs comprised the entire program. The Eclipse Quartet was joined by the Aperture Duo, Grace Oh and Julie Jung to complete the eight-piece ensemble. Seating in the Monk Space venue was reconfigured to accommodate the larger musical forces and to take full advantage of the close acoustics. Everyone in the audience was within twenty feet of the players, allowing the listeners to be immersed in the warm sonority of the strings.

Separation Songs is fashioned from ten New England hymn tunes written by William Billings in the early 18th century. This is plain, yet stately, church music that carries comfort and warmth in every note. The original harmonies have been delicately processed and woven together to create a continuous flow.  Composer Matt Sargent writes “Throughout the piece, hymn tunes come and go, passing from one quartet to the other: As tunes reappear, they filter through a ‘separation process,’ whereby selected notes migrate from one quartet to the other. The process leaves breaks in the music that remain silent or are filled by stretching the durations of nearby notes, generating new rhythms and harmonies.”

The two quartets were arrayed as mirror images: the  cellos were in the center and the higher strings seated in a semicircle on either side. The brick walls surrounding the performance space brought out every timbral nuance. Separation Songs opened with one quartet playing a Billings hymn in full harmony. The second quartet picked up the tune while the first played long sustaining tones in support. As the piece proceeded, the hymn tunes and sustained notes were passed back and forth between the two quartets in a regular exchange. Nothing was rushed and only slight variations in dynamics, tempo or texture could be detected. Everything was carried forward in the kaleidoscopic unfolding of the harmonies so that a warm wash of sound enveloped the audience in a profound serenity. The playing was very expressive and care was taken by the musicians to coordinate the two quartets in a piece with few landmarks.

Separation Songs rolls along for 70 minutes with almost no change in its character, but the harmonic variations keep the listener continuously engaged. The sturdy hymn tunes bring a sense of strength and wistfulness to this music; a shorter version would make a perfect prelude at a memorial service. Separation Songs is a powerful re-imagining of the early American congregational hymn, and succeeds brilliantly in bringing a sharpened sense of the transcendental into the 21st century. As the last notes faded away, a full 15 seconds of respectful silence followed before the start of a roaring ovation from the audience.

Separations Songs is available on CD from Cold Blue Music.

The Eclipse Quartet is:
Sarah Thornblade, violin
Sara Parkins, violin
Alma Lisa Fernandez, viola
Maggie Parkins, cello

The Aperture Duo is:
Adrianne Pope, violin
Linnea Powell, viola

Grace Oh, violin
Julie Jung, cello

The next Cold Blue Music presentation will be at the Soundwaves concert series at the Santa Monica Public Library on March 18, 2020, and will feature music from several new CD releases.