The Friday concert at the Festival of Contemporary Music (FCM) at Tanglewood featured the New Fromm Players in a quartet of quartets written in the last eight years. No theme suggested itself for the afternoon, but “searching for a voice” came to mind. All four works had to confront the history of this archetypal ensemble and find a way to make it personal. None succeeded entirely, but some grappled more effectively than others.
To my ear, the study in fragility that is Hans Abrahamsen’s (b. 1952) String Quartet No. 3 lingered longest. Wisps of melody intertwined to create a minimalist surface, but the mechanisms that created the music were fluid and subtly various, and often played at the edge of audibility; the last movement was performed entirely with metal practice mutes. It was willing to court tedium, but even when it threatened to sound like (hushed, urgent) finger exercises, there was something going on that compelled attention. Its most extroverted moments occurred in the third movement, where lines kept running up to linger in clinging suspensions. It reminded me of Morton Feldman’s music in its denser, chromatic moments. But at its best, especially in that movement marked Molto tranquillo e lontano e legato, it has a simplicity and elusive charm that seemed to silence even the crows who commented throughout the afternoon.
Joseph Phibbs’s (b. 1974) String Quartet No. 1 searches for its voice by rummaging in the attic of past music. It opens with a selfconsciously archaic sound, calling to mind the last movement of Ben Johnston’s last quartet but without his microtonal haze to justify it (or the surprise Johnston buries in it). But once Phibbs finishes with that, he goes looking farther afield, calling to mind milder Shostakovich or rhetorical Britten; lyrical, modal melody of early 20th-century English composers; and angular stomping recalling watered-down Bartok or early Lutoslawksi. There’s so much of this going on that it is tempting to call it postmodernism, but with no hint of humor or irony in any of it. If this is appropriation, it is dead-serious, even desperate. That is a perfectly understandable reaction for a contemporary composer to have in the face of the mountain of historical repertoire, and Phibbs does find something of his own in this collection, but it is fitfully audible, and threatens to be buried by the very skill of his borrowing. Certainly he does not lack for ambition or musical skill: the quartet has five strongly contrasting movements, and sustains interest for nearly all of its nearly half-hour length. Having waited until he was 40 to write a quartet, Phibbs wrote his second a year later, and the program notes said a third is in the works. The searching intellect on display in this first work encourages one to see what more he has discovered, or will discover.
Donnacha Dennehy’s (b. 1970) One Hundred Goodbyes (Cead Slan) was one of two works that added electronics, in this case heavily sampled and arranged recordings of Irish traditional songs and Gaelic speech. The recordings were made in the late 1920s by Wilhelm Doegen and Karl Tempel, funded by the new Irish government to capture what was already recognized as a dying rural way of life. The songs are played in distant, muffled monophonic fragments while the quartet skirls around them. The instruments respond to the voices with everything from overt echos or anticipations to slight changes in texture, rhythm or balance. The inevitable comparison has to be with Steve Reich’s Different Trains, but without Reich’s overt theatricality and with a suppler minimalist technique. This makes for a more modest piece, one which pays gentle tribute to a society now dead. Unfortunately, its modesty is not enough to support its scale; each movement threatens to exhaust interest before its end, and although the peculiar vocal production of the last recorded singer was not to be missed, the piece itself felt overextended. Perhaps some of this might be laid at the foot of the players. The New Fromm Players (Jordan Koransky and Natsuki Kumagai, violin; Mary Ferrillo, viola; Francesca McNeeley, cello) are all TMC alumni brought together under the aegis of the Fromm Foundation for the purpose of playing new music. As such, they are each formidable technicians and expressive players with strong personalities (longtime attendees at NEC concerts might even recognize Kumagai and her forthright playing). An expressly temporary ensemble, they must struggle to find a collective voice, and the group personality projected on this occasion was powerful, even intimidating, while a touch aloof. Dennehy’s work may have demanded more heart-on-sleeve that they were able to offer.
I am aware that Sebastian Currier (b. 1959) had something of a sensation with the BSO last year when they played his Divisions, which I did not hear. So I was looking forward to his Deep-Sky Objects, a 10-song cycle for soprano, quartet, and piano, and came away confused and disappointed. Like Dennehey, Currier wrote the work in 2011 and used electronics, but there the similarities end. The electronics here are an intrusive array of samples programmed into a keyboard, many of which call to mind hoary planetarium music and sound effects. This is apparently on purpose: the texts (by Sarah Manguso, in collaboration with the composer) talk of satellites and stars, the sky and the universe. Not only the texts but their one-word titles (“Satellite”, “Star”, “Time”; you get the idea) are set, the titles pronounced by electronic voices distorted and seemingly autotuned. The notes quote the composer as saying these title-bits sound “almost like ringtones”, so I suppose I’m getting the right impression; it just failed. The sounds are tinny and mechanical—nothing ages so fast as new technology—and to ensure their supremacy all the players were miked and mixed, meaning the sound came at the audience from a flat plane with no depth. The mixing in this case was expert—the sound system in Ozawa Hall seems quite oversized and I have sat through other electronic works that were painful. Even so, the voice of soprano Sophia Burgos was hard to assess and robbed of resonance. She certainly navigated the trickier moments with aplomb, grace and accuracy. The music is not strong enough to hold its own against the gimmickry that surrounds it; the texts are romantic and longing and pleasant enough, but the whole things smacks of intellectual laziness, taking on some big concepts about the universe and turning them into scifi high art. Even computer science gets into the game, with the line “Oh tremendous wall of numbers —/Oh 011110010110111101110101”, which is just as awkward to hear sung as you imagine. The notes tell us this spells “You” in binary. I’ll spare Intelligencer readers my software engineering background, but feel free to imagine me holding my forehead in frustration. The Fromm Players, with pianist Jordan Marzan, played gamely and athletically, and to be fair there were moments of cold lyricism that were executed perfectly. But the lingering image is of Max Grafe, credited with “electronics”, sitting at the sample-loaded keyboard, pressing a single key to allow another squib of electronica into the mix. As we approached the conclusion, there was a long moment of sound dissolving into nothingness, given over entirely to the electronics, and so we watched the talented young musicians sit there, motionless, silent, waiting for the piece to end.