THE PENDERECKI STRING QUARTET reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, March 10, 2007
New Music Concerts present
The Music Gallery, Toronto

ANNUNCIATION (2005) for string quartet and live electronics.

Omar Daniel’s composition is iconic: blocks of sound sculpted into simple shapes juxtaposed dramatically, vibrating in sympathy with the figures of Mary and the Angel Gabriel in the projected slide sequence of six ‘Annunciation’ paintings from the Italian Renaissance. The music seemingly organized in serial tone rows pulses dynamically in the manner of the Russians, Stravinsky and Shostakovich, at times characterized by a deep drone threaded precariously by a single instrumental voice. Often slow and sad, sometimes shrill and unearthly, the tones suggest heavy, dark emotions of a situation in dire straits. The live electronics Mr. Daniel manipulates from his console are subtle, tending to hollow out the tones of the Penderecki’s instruments.

The presence of the sacred images on the large screen somehow stabilizes the emotionally disturbing quality of the music, as if messages from two realities, the sacred and the chaotic, behind our everyday sense of things were being brought forward as a temporary stay against confusion.

EVERYTHING WE SEE IN THE SKY (2005) for string quartet and digital signal processing

Laurie Radford’s composition is kinetic, like the track of a comet: fragments flocking in a space-time continuum. Radford’s electronics extend the timbral range of this string quartet into a dimensional shift that enhances our ability to imagine interplay and collision of sonics at the quantum level as well as the astral.

The Penderecki’s sounds are flattened and squashed, stretched and extenuated. Piercing and fading sounds, sliding and groaning sounds manifest weirdly from a matrix that approximates Appalachian sonics like the psychedelic bluegrass jug band from outer/inner space.

One has the sense of musical phrases being speeches, without narrative or political intent, by voices single and in unison, as if we are hearing a simulcast of the entire vocal production of the crew of a spaceship including moments of serious personal drama and episodes of collective accord. Truly a voyage and really a trip.

MIDAREGAMI (tangled hair) 2007 for string quartet and mezzo-soprano. Text by Akiko Yosana. Video design by Robert Drummond.

Veronika Krausas’ composition begins naturalistically: pizzicato plinks on the strings and on the screen filmed ripples like tracks of raindrops expanding in liquid spirals. Kimberly Barber sings: “ I see drops of rain/On the floating leaves of white lotus; in the small boat/ Where my lover paints.”

This sequence is followed by sustained single notes that call onto the screen elongated tubular forms marked with scaly sectional rings: we are in the world of CSI microscopy of ‘hair evidence’—hence the title, “midaregami/tangled hair. Ms. Barber sings: “Hair all tangled this morning-/ Shall I smooth it/ With spring rain/ Dripping from the jet-black/ Wings of swallow?”

The instrumental sounds become enriched, images cycle on the screen: of sky cloudy and serene, of wheat fields, hands, fields of flowers, electronic microscopic landscapes, fields of cellular and industrial debris. Ms. Barber vocalizes powerfully of fleeting love lost, of despair dissolving into nostalgia, as order dissolves into chaos that resolves into a ritual of cyclic return.

This composition with the image of “tangled hair” in the title, depicting a sequence of uncontrollable erotic emotions, has its roots deep in multilayers of formality. The 7 songs in the cycle have a syllabic count of made of 5’s and 7’s and relate to metrical and rhythmic 5 and 7 features in the music. The melodic line follows a minor pentatonic scale. The selection of basic pitches is based on information about the molecular frequency spectrum of the fragrance of rose geranium.

This musical presentation inspirationally sourced from Japanese literature, sub molecular microscopy, flowers and flesh, is its own mysterious ritual display, like Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. “Midaregami” moves our minds into what may seem to us like a future state but is also the present-already-moving-into-the-past of the artist and scientist. This collaboration around Ms. Krausas’ music might aptly be titled, “SuperString Theory.”

TRANCEPAINING (Black Wings Has My Angel) String Quartet No.3 (2007)

Piotr Grella-Mozejko’s composition is a tour de force of perpetual motion.”TrancePaining” has the members of the Penderecki Quartet sawing away at their instruments in strokes short and quick as hummingbird wings, rattling out the hoarse throated drone of martial snare drums, like the thunder of boots of an army of dreadful intent marching over a wooden bridge bringing it to the verge of disintegration and collapse. To get it, one has to imagine Philip Glass riding on the “Wabash Cannonball” rewriting Katchaturian’s “Sabre Dance” for string quartet and locomotive.

This is not exactly chamber music. It is music of political protest. To quote the composer, “TransPaining” is a voice of protest “against all those Hitler-like tyrants springing up in the south, east and west, using their often unlimited powers to bleed nations in the name of freedom. The music reflects the anger all those who believe in humanity must feel while witnessing the slaughter of the innocents.”

The stunning energy and commitment in the performance of this piece by the members of the Penderecki Quartet moved the piece past violence and righteous indignation towards a feeling of catharsis, a breaking of the trance, a dissolving of the pain.

The Penderecki Quartet commissioned all the pieces in this programme with funds from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Canada Council for the Arts. Thanks to the vision and exertion of Robert Aitken and New Music Concerts Toronto was able to participate in this visionary programme.

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