Friday, October 24, 2008
You can't beat 2 violins, viola and cello
You can't beat 2 guitars, bass and drums
- Lou Reed, from the back cover of New York
The concept of the perfect rock combo Lou Reed describes is a direct descendant of the perfect classical combo of the string quartet, and really nothing is finer than 20th century string quartets. Something about the form focuses the composer and listener into a locked gaze - you the listener hear everything being said, even at its wildest
Penderecki's String Quartet no. 1 is wildness trapped in a jar, flailing to get out. The players slap their instruments and take minute shrieking scrapes of the strings as if they are trying to shoo a swarm of bees with their bows, and in that glorious chaotic racket, small moments of glowing cerebral clarity emerge, methodical, as if life was being ruthlessly and algebraically analyzed by sentient outsiders. As soon as the being thinks he has everything figured out, the thickets reemerge and tangle the mess up before its very eyes.
I say algebraically, because string quartets always seem to be trying to solve a localized problem, as opposed to the way symphonies map out of a cosmologies or song allow a single voice or thought bleed through the din. I also say it because right after the first string quartet I ever heard performed live - Leoš Janáček´s String Quartet No. 2 ("Intimate Letters") by the Guarneri String Quartet in 1988 at the LSU Union Theatre - I remember remarking to the person with me that it sounded like "doing algebra while the plane goes down." Evidently my penchant for romanticizing tragic events through art has been long running, but has matured over time, because I don't hear the panic in it now that I did then I was nineteen and everything is felt in a panic when you're nineteen.
Now I hear a full range of wistfulness - daydreams and bittersweet memories running up against anxiety and dread - all tied up by a repeated theme that evokes the image of furious writing, as if you are witnessing someone at a desk trying to craft the intimate letter hinted in the subtitle, getting caught in the updraft of imagined results of his or her words being committed to paper. Even the brief tidy ending practically licks an envelope and drops it into the mailslot, stopping with the sudden shock you get when you mail something off, realizing that your action and words are now grease in the wheels of destiny, and you are left to do nothing but wait to see what comes of it.
In Anton Webern, we have none of this mulling, even in the shockingly romantic, un-numbered (and, for Webern, lengthy at seventeen minutes) String Quartet of 1905. But in his numbered opii where he focused his lacerating vision in a white hot beam (through a lens made of Schoenberg, Nazi patriotism during the Second World War and a young man's rage against the illogical) is where some real metaphysical problems get succinctly addressed.
6 Bagatelles, Op. 9 (1913) most of which clock in at under a minute, have the quartet issuing a series of shrieks and whimpers from the corner, ironically upending the definition of a bagatelle as a "trifle." Webern's music often registers as terror in contemporary ears due to atonality's dominant presence in the DNA of horror film soundtracks, but I think there is a real shuddering anxiety at play in this piece. His String Quartet op. 28 (bares some of those traumatic marks but is more distanced and philosophical in its exploration, he is laying his concerns out on the table rather than hiding under it. The balance may come from the purposed utilization of the BACH motif, a note sequence based on intersecting music staffs and reading them forwards and backwards that in German notation, spells out B-A-C-H (a deeper explanation lies here.)
Atonal music is concerned with the equal balancing of notes, repurposing a sequence forwards and backwards and upside-down, revealing the panorama of meaning in a melody much in the way Cubist paintings do it for their subjects. I'm not sure how successful it is because I listen experientially and not architecturally to this music, but I do know that Webern chisels at corners of music that no other composer can seem to get to, or, as Stravinsky put it on the 10th anniversary of the composer death (shot by an American soldier for being out after curfew in 1945):
Doomed to a total failure in a deaf world of ignorance and indifference he inexorably kept on cutting out his diamonds, his dazzling diamonds, the mines of which he had such a perfect knowledge (link)