Modern Exoticism From the Cypress Quartet

Trista Bernstein on April 17, 2011

How do you respond artistically to a distant time? For composer Jeffrey Cotton, the answer to this question was simple — you make a new distant land. After all, the past is a different country as L.P. Hartley famously said.

Cotton is collaborating once again with the Cypress Quartet on their 12th Call and Response concert (May 5 at Herbst Theatre), in which a composer is commissioned to write a piece that takes two masterworks as a starting point. “The chance to work with them is an enormous thrill for me ... It is a thrill to hear them play your music. But just as importantly for me is the quality, the experience of working with them personally.” The first collaboration between Cotton and the Cypress Quartet was his String Quartet No. 1 (2004). The group recorded it the next year, and its Capriccio movement is in the Cypress’s encore repertoire. Cotton jumped at the chance to work with the Quartet again and respond to another master’s work.

But this endeavor was very different than the first. Cotton was charged not with a direct response to a work, but a response to a theme — exoticism in Parisian music (and art) in the decades around the beginning of the 20th Century. The “Call” pieces delve into Russian orientalism (in Alexander Glazunov's Novelettes), Javanese Gamelan (an influence in Debussy's String Quartet), and “primitivism,” as the Cypress's cellist, Jennifer Kloetzel explains: “[Ernest] Bloch [in Landscapes was responding to the craze of the time, Nanook of the North, but also imagining the music of Tonga ... The question is, what does Exoticism mean today? What will Jeffery write in a world where you can hear any sort of music with a click of a button on your computer!”

“I really struggled with this, what would be exotic to me?” Exoticism focuses on faraway lands, but Cotton was only a plane ride away from those lands. Not only has the Far East been a source of inspiration for many 20th-century composers, but it is no longer exotic. How do you respond to a theme when the basic parameters of that theme no longer exist? Cotton found his answer in fantasy, the only inaccessible world left to him.

This fictional world is located in Cotton’s first novel, which is currently being completed. Though the new work uses fantasy as the point of departure, Cotton is clear that it will not sound like the music of the upcoming Harry Potter movie. “This is probably one of the quirkiest pieces of music I have ever written ... It's called Serenade but that title is almost used ironically.” His approach to the piece mirrors his approach to his novel, which he describes as angular and capricious. But these faraway lands are not that different from the Parisian view of the “Orient.” Like most exotic locales, even Debussy's and Bloch's, they're located mostly in imagination.