Strange Geography (String Quartet no. 3)

2 vln, vla, vcl
10 min 30”

The string quartet, throughout its long and weighty history, has been perhaps the most abstract, intimate genre of all, inviting composers of all aesthetic leanings to confess their most oblique thoughts, and to experiment with abandon. Such is the case here, with this compact, inward third quartet, conceived in tandem with its mirror twin, my more extroverted second. The two pieces, while quite different in tone and temperament, share strands of musical DNA, a certain fragmentary nature, as well as a technical concern with repetition and pulse, and the lyricism to be found therein.

The main pulse device used here is polyrhythm, the layering of asynchronous beats that I find the string quartet particularly well suited to. The opening wavelike gestures of non-aligned, legato rocking figures give way to lines of repeated pulses, which are gradually surrounded by other independent pulses, forming waves of their own. These passages crest and recede, their bright diatonicism periodically clouding over in interludes of more rhetorical music, and coming to rest about halfway through in a pool of still, reflective chords. The pulsations invariably resume, though, carrying the music off again.

The title Strange Geography alludes in part to my relationship with the quartet genre: not being a string player, the ensemble has always felt somewhat like terra incognita. It also describes the tone of the piece: tentative, exploratory, only sporadically assertive, never quite sure of, nor particularly concerned with a final destination – much like my own path through the material. Lastly, it touches on my hiking hobby, with the pulsed music in my mind representing the trail – continuous, sometimes jagged, goal-directed in principle but more about the here-and-now – and the more chromatic interruptions like some geological formation seen initially from a distance, and gradually approached. All belong to the same landscape, but serve different functions in relation to the viewer: one is traveled, the other merely visited in passing. In the end what remains is the trail, stretching onward past any arbitrary stopping point, and the wistful urge to just keep walking.

Strange Geography was commissioned by Meta4 in celebration of their 18th anniversary.