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Raising the Roof With Del Sol

April 1, 2011

Old First Concerts

Any recital on April Fools’ Day should have a certain degree of humor involved. This could not have been better exemplified than by Friday’s silly, exciting, uplifting, and technically excellent recital by the Del Sol Quartet at Old First Church. The group jumped from continent to continent, from male to female, from equal-tempered tuning to just intonation to Persian intonation — and from the silly to the sublime.

The show opened with the quartet walking on stage, appearing ready to play a work by Elena Kats-Chernin, an Uzbek now living in Australia, but instead launched into the first bars of Mozart’s infamous Eine Kleine Nacht Musik, and the audience roared with laughter. The group didn’t stop there, though. As they continued, the piece began to fragment and divide, slowly turning into an incredibly modern, twisted version of the piece, with just enough of the original theme coming through to clarify what, exactly, we were hearing. The group continued the improvisation for a brief four minutes, something that more new-music ensembles might try. Improvisation used to be common practice for performers, and now it’s predominantly the purview of the jazz world. The Del Sol’s improvisation felt cohesive, clear, and well-structured, even if structured for humor.

Launching the scheduled program, Kats-Chernin’ piece Urban Village 2 was lively, energetic, and bubbly. The players positively beamed through the music, smiling and grooving with excitement. This is party music played at its best and most engaging. Despite its outward “showiness,” the piece made exceptional use of engaging rhythmic motifs and structures, showing both craft and flash.

In the haunting Song of the Ch’in, Zhou Long imitated the plucked nature of the ch’in, a seven-string plucked instrument, by making liberal use of pizzicato throughout the piece, a simple-enough idea that was executed with great skill. The piece inhabited that wonderful cross-pollination of genres that seems most possible in classical music, but this time in a sublime combination of traditional Chinese music for Western instruments. Every second of the piece felt at home in both worlds, a rare accomplishment.

The final piece on the first half was a movement from Raymond Murray Schafer’s Quartet No. 3. This aggressive piece calls for the players to shout, chant, scream, and periodically gasp for breath as it goes on. Almost every note is accompanied by a chant, yell, or screech. For my taste, the piece lasted too long, though the players performed with verve and intensity.

Calling for New Tuning, Fresh Ears

The recital’s true meat came in the second half, with Ben Johnston’s 10th String Quartet. For those who don’t know, a brief music lesson: An octave, despite its linguistic root, divides into a dozen equal parts — the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, a system that Western classical music has been using, more or less, for 400 years. This is a wonderful system that works fantastically. However, this was not always the system used. Before there was logic, there was intuition, and so people just tuned to what felt right to them, making some intervals slightly wider than we in the Western world typically hear, and some slightly narrower. Along came the 20th century, and composers went even crazier, and started wondering: “What would happen if we go back to systems used before this equal-tempered system? Why not divide the octave in unequal parts, or a different number of equal parts? What would happen if the 12-note octave were divided into 43 notes?”

Along comes Johnston, a guy studying such microtonalities, who became interested in what he considers to be the purest tonality: the one that exists in the natural harmonics of any instrument. He writes his string quartets with these principles in mind, and details every single note and how it should be played, depending on how a chord is voiced.

His end result was glorious: music that would sound beautiful in regular tuning now sounds revelatory, while music that would just be dissonant becomes gnarly and grotesque in all the right ways. Playing in a different tuning system is an incredibly difficult task, requiring the performers to throw out much of what they have learned about their instruments and place their fingers in very different places than normal. The Del Sol Quartet did this spectacularly.

Having covered a completely different tuning system, the Del Sol jumped cultures yet again, this time embracing the Persian scales of Reza Vali. Calligraphies VI calls for the players to work with even more difficult Persian scales and ornamentation. The piece is gorgeous from start to finish, showcasing the ensemble’s sheer raw talent and skill. A favorite moment of mine occurs near the end, when the entire quartet lands on the same unison note, plays in four different places on their instruments, and then bows violently back and forth at each other, tearing a hole in the fabric of the piece and leading to its inevitable conclusion. It was truly a beautiful performance.

The Del Sol String Quartet is doing exactly what I like in the new-music world: presenting unified and interesting concerts that step across genres, continents, styles, and levels of seriousness. Its members brought forth the unique voice of each piece and complemented each other amazingly well throughout this mesmerizing evening.

Matthew Cmiel holds degrees in composition from The Curtis Institute of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He has received numerous commissions, including one from Maestra Marin Alsop for the Cabrillo New Music Festival. Founder of the ensemble Formerly Known as Classical and The Hot Air Music Festival, he is currently the Director of Orchestras at San Francisco's Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, and co-director of the ensemble After Everything.

Comments

I knew Ben Johnston very well, having recorded his 2nd Quartet as a member of the Composers Quartet for Nonesuch in 1967, and, as a member of the Fine Arts Quartet, commissioning and recording his Quartet #4 "Amazing Grace" for Gasparo in 1980.
Your description of how he embraced so-called "just" intonation is close to the mark; the technical difficulties of truly producing his desired ends very nearly requires putting your fingers in a pencil sharpener with a bottle of anesthesia handy, but the results can be quite eye (and ear) opening.
In my upcoming memoir ("The Viola in My Life" - shameless plug) there will be 2 CDs, one of which will include the "Amazing Grace" recording (and it is rather amazing, with its many variations - blues, etc.) and Ruth Crawford-Seegar's single ( and even more amazing for its time - 1931) quartet.
All of Ben's quartets have been recorded, and some a re a lot better than others, but he kicked the can of microtonal tuning farther, and more successfully, than any other and I miss his presence.

Bernie Zaslav