Here's an album with a wonderfully eclectic program (Debussy's masterful Quartet in G Minor being the centerpiece and indeed the seed of inspiration for the record-on the surrounding pieces, the quartet extends invitations to listeners of modern 'classical' and even post-rock) by one of my favorite String Quartets, "Brooklyn Rider". Brooklyn Rider's passionate playing and recordings will likely be a delight for the 'contemporary' music/quartet enthusiast, alongside ensembles such as The Kronos (surprise..), Balanescu, Brodsky or JACK quartets..to name just a few. Brooklyn Rider has also collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble and many others, all are more than worth checking out.
On "Dominant Curve", they've chosen to unify the album thematically more than musically, and they focus on exploring how the ideas of French composer Claude Debussy, who lived from 1862 to 1918, have traveled forward through music to the modern day. To that end, they've chosen to perform Debussy's own masterpiece, the "String Quartet in G Minor", and Brooklyn Rider violinist (and a favorite composer of mine) Colin Jacobsen composed his four-movement quartet titled "Achilles' Heel" (Debussy's given name was Achille-Claude), which effectively explores similar rhythmic and harmonic concepts to the Debussy piece. The quartet also commissioned original compositions from Japan's Kojiro Umezaki, Uzbekistan's Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, and American Justin Messina that explore some of those same ideas, yet in very different ways.
The reading of the Debussy Quartet in G Minor (written in 1893), is intense and lively, full of sharp dynamic shifts and subtly virtuoso playing that imparts amazing tonal and textural variety to the score. Brooklyn Rider vigorously accentuates the rhythms and subtly stretches the harmonies. The third movement in particular is gorgeously ethereal, and taken as a whole the Quartet in G gets an all around impressive workout. Debussy composed the Quartet whilst he was just embarking on his most celebrated phase, in which he became keenly interested in modal harmony, unusual scales and sound combinations, and ethnic music from outside Europe, including Indonesian gamelan, which informed some of his rhythmic ideas. Brooklyn Rider have built their repertoire on a restless interest in synthesizing global sounds and Western classical music.
Colin Jacobsen's piece, imo rather 'kick-ass' and head-nodding, was written to act as something of a descendant of the "String Quartet in G Minor", and also uses modal composition and shares some arranging sensibilities with its predecessor, making extensive use of pizzicato playing, rhythmic patterns, and non-standard bowing techniques. The style is eclectic: sweetly shaped melodies float over harmonically dense accompaniments, and toward the end, he edges toward the shimmering harmonies that animate the Debussy quartet. The second movement, which I find completely irresistible-is a fine example of this, and it's both funky and especially dramatic. This is precisely the kind of modern quartet writing that I just love!
The other pieces are steps further removed from Debussy but still share elements with his String Quartet-notably the modal harmonic structures and tendency to call on the players to use odd techniques. Kojiro Umezaki joins the quartet, playing a traditional Japanese wood flute called the Shakuhachi in his mysterious "Cycles (What Falls Must Rise)", a textural piece that incorporates electronic manipulation. Here the large, ancient flute alternates between stillness and rapid-fire fifth intervals. Just before the 9 minute mark, the quartet, with bowed cello, plays what sounds to my ears to be a Hebraic-inspired and mournful tune, lead by the viola-then the shakuhachi joins in, leading to a lively section that continues to hint at Eastern Europe, the energy ascending towards (or so one might think) the ecstatic-only to descend less than 60 seconds after (for this listener, like a train slowing to enter a station..), quieting and with hushed tones recalling the beginning of this most original and exotic journey-one worth taking many times I think!
Justin Messina also joins the quartet, controlling electronics on his own string quartet arrangement of John Cage's 1948 composition "In a Landscape", which was originally intended for piano or harp. It expands on the original, with layers of electronics and strings that evoke the Chinese sheng (mouth organ) and a hint of glass harmonica. It's a haunting piece to begin with, but this version, with its emphasis on high, sustained violin tones can practically make the hair stand up on your neck.
Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky's "...Al Niente" (Italian for "to nothing"), pits sudden, fragmented violin phrases against slow-motion, sumptuous harmonies as if lightning were striking downward through drifting clouds and Debussy and the rest of musical history were being subsumed into a grand chord. Clearly it too strives for the drama inherent in the Quartet in G Minor, weaving thematic fragments from the score into an eerie, otherworldly texture, creating a harmonic smear that full-bodied violin runs can leap out of at its beginning and proceeding through odd rippling passages to a quiet and long decay.
1. Achille's Heel, for String Quartet: Lydia's Reflection
2. Achille's Heel, for String Quartet: Second Bounce
3. Achille's Heel, for String Quartet: Loveland
4. Achille's Heel, for String Quartet: Shur Landing
5. (Cycles) What falls must rise, for String Quartet, Shakuhachi & Electronics
6. String Quartet, L. 85 (Op. 10): Animé et très décidé
7. String Quartet, L. 85 (Op. 10): Assez vif et bien rytmé
8. String Quartet, L. 85 (Op. 10): Andantino, doucement expressif
9. String Quartet, L. 85 (Op. 10): Très modéré - Très mouvementé et avec passion
10. ...al niente, for String Quartet
John Cage (arr. Justin Messina)
11. In a Landscape, for piano or harp
12. Lullaby from Itsuki - Japanese Traditional, arr. Kojiro Umezaki and Brooklyn Rider
(this is the bonus track only available on the digital download)
Johnny Gandelsman, violin
Colin Jacobsen, violin
Nicholas Cords, viola
Eric Jacobsen, cello
Kojiro Umezaki, shakuhachi and electronics
Justin Messina, electronics