Thursday, March 30, 2017

A stretch for Ensemble Music Society: Arditti Quartet plays works from the past three decades

The Big Bang Theory applied to the string quartet would probably identify the triggering event as the works of Joseph Haydn. Without pressing the analogy too hard, the music offered Wednesday evening by the Arditti Quartet and Eliot Fisk represented the genre's development from that mid-18th-century point, through galaxies too various to describe briefly, to the phenomenon of musical supernovas.

The Arditti Quartet specializes in new music.
Just as accumulated gravity too massive for a star to contain results in its explosion, so did the exploratory reach of the string quartet genre bring its tightly organized discoveries to the point of violent expansion in the modern era. What may have appeared to some Ensemble Music Society patrons as anti-musical about much of the program can be credibly understood and valued as confirmation that the musical universe is ever-expanding.

It's self-limiting for a listener to describe the works of Philippe Manoury, Gyorgy Kurtag, Hilda Paredes and Helmut Lachenmann  — the bulk of the Arditti Quartet's program — as "experimental." I think it was Edgard Varese who rejected that label from the composer's point of view: It's the listener who must experiment, he said.

Other instruments, singly and in combination, have been subject to the gravitational pull of the evolving string quartet. This fact also was underlined by the concert at the Indiana History Center, which had as centerpiece a 2016 work for guitar and string quartet, "Son dementes cuerdas," by Hilda Paredes. The composer's program notes suggest the interest that idiomatic styles are juxtaposed and contrasted, and similar techniques, such as glissandi, are presented to expose differences in timbre between guitar and string quartet.

Master guitarist Eliot Fisk was on hand to join violinist Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissjan, violist Ralf Ehlers, and cellist Lucas
Eliot Fisk is well-known for the range of his collaborations.
Fels in the piece. Variegated textures were quickly brought to the fore, and the interaction of the five players often had the effect of one new instrument with five constituents. To return to the astronomical analogy, the binary star system of guitar and string quartet in this work exchanges so much gravitational energy that something new and far-reaching is born. In light of this analogy, the subdued ending of the work seemed very much in order.

The concert opened with Fisk's solo appearance, playing Sequenza XI, which Luciano Berio wrote for him in 1988. As with other works in this series, Berio suggests a narrative through episodic scrutiny of a solo instrument's capabilities. With evident mastery of tone and articulation, Fisk played a piece that went from the thumping resonance of the tambour technique, with its evocations of flamenco guitar, through all kinds of guitar idiosyncrasies, tied to a common thread throughout. The resonance achieved kaleidoscopic breadth, with surfaces ranging from matte to glossy (to borrow terms from painting), and suggestions of other instruments ranging from drums to flutes. Again, a quiet ending seemed to display a mind at rest after considerable adventures.

At the other end of the program came the most challenging piece, Lachenmann's String Quartet No. 3 ("Grido").  The nickname is Italian for "shout" or "cry." Just as a shout or cry varies along a spectrum of explicit and implicit meaning, so does this lengthy work preserve an ambiguity about what differentiates music from noise. I found this a wholly coherent work despite the tension between music and noise — a tension which is probably perpetual. It stems from the expressive range of the human voice among the phenomena of song, speech, and vocal expressions that are neither.

Thus we heard groans, whimpers and something like stomach rumblings or creaking branches in the wind. Extended techniques made sporadic and conspicuous appearances, such as a different kind of "up bow" from the cello (literally up in the direction of the scroll). Traditional ways of playing string instruments, such as harmonics and tremolos, were presented in new contexts. There was unity between musical content and style in a way that made them less separable in the mind than normal.

More approachable expressively was Kurtag's "Officium Breve, in memoriam Andreae Szervanszky," because recognizable  features of elegiac music were never far from the surface. Tempo variations sounded very much within the postures of lamentation. The concert's one extended episode of tonal music near the end put a seal upon this moving tribute.

Structurally, the Kurtag piece was close to Manoury's String Quartet No. 4 ("Fragmenti"), which it otherwise didn't resemble. Both works use fragments of different lengths. Manoury has a more radical notion of what these fragments are meant to convey. They hang together to the degree that any miscellaneous collection proclaims a personality. We all have them around the house, probably. Manoury put his into music. This was the least engaging work on the concert to me. Its continual muttering and sorting, and the vast differences in length from one variation to the next, didn't represent much beyond watching an artist putter around in his workshop.

Nonetheless, the concert as a whole has to be accounted one of the most striking presentations of recent years in the excellent Ensemble Music Society series. We can always gaze in wonder at the usual musical stars in the heavens, but discovering supernovas can reliably move us us to a different level of awe.