Sounds Heard: Rzewski, Tenney, Parkins—Music for String Quartet & Percussion
This lovely new recording by the Eclipse Quartet and percussionist William Winant is, primarily, united by the relatively unusual, pleasantly mad scientist-ish combination of string quartet and percussion. But it also presents three works that wear their respective approaches to marking the time on their sleeves.
From one vantage, almost all music analysis can be summed up in one question: Where does the time go? This lovely new recording by the Los Angeles-based new music specialist Eclipse Quartet and percussionist William Winant is, primarily, united by the relatively unusual, pleasantly mad scientist-ish combination of string quartet and percussion. But it also presents three works that wear their respective approaches to marking the time on their sleeves. It also suggests, however small the sample size, that how the time gets passed depends on what time the composer has passed through; the cohort divide between the program’s composers is audible and fascinating. When it comes to time—to paraphrase one of my favorite time-killers—the perennial problem for each generation is finding a good way to spend it.
Boxes and process characterize the first two works. The nested elevens of Frederic Rzewski’s Whimwhams, for string quartet and marimba—eleven sections of eleven groups of eleven quarter-note beats—is a restrictive yin to a pure-imagination yang: the modules are, ostensibly, the only formal restriction on a form of compositional improvisation, Rzewski filling each module with bits of passing fantasy. But Rzewski’s improvising is disciplined and restrained: his conviction seems to be that the short ideas—a quick little four-note oscillation, for example, is a prominent character—have more variation and potential than might be apparent. Motives stay in play for a surprisingly long time from section to section; much of the music’s hold on the ear hinges on subtleties—some modules circle back to their beginnings, some don’t, and Rzewski has a fair amount of fun with tiny shifts that nonetheless completely change a phrase’s stylistic lean.
The entire process of James Tenney’s Cognate Canons is announced in the title: twenty-five minutes of canonic near-translation, pitched strings and largely unpitched percussion doing their best to echo each other. That the time goes so quickly is due to Tenney’s management of the gap between vocabularies: the relationship between the string and percussion sounds are close enough to recognize but far enough to lose track of, and it’s easy for the listener to slip between hearing the structure assured by the title and setting it aside for an experience of pure sound. The piece wears its ingenuity lightly.
Whimwhams and Cognate Canons are generational cousins: both composers were born in the ’30s, both pieces date from 1993. Zeena Parkins, whose s:c:a:t:t:e:r:i:n:g fills out the recording (and was commissioned by the performers), is of a later time. Parkins got her start in the experimental music world of 1980s New York, and her experience is characteristic of that time and place: a lot of avant-garde rock bands, a lot of music for dance, a lot of free movement between notation and improvisation—and between alternative spaces and academia.
Completed in 2012, s:c:a:t:t:e:r:i:n:g has a structural similarity to Whimwhams—ten continuous movements this time, in which ideas weave and swirl from section to section. But Parkins’s music is cumulative: the ideas don’t so much bounce off of each other as pile up. There’s a heavy overlay of electronics as well, amplifying the instruments, processing the sound, introducing new sounds—manipulated vocal sounds are a prominent feature. The music is deliberately overscheduled, a crowded grid.
One of my listening sessions with this recording filled the time on a long, cross-country drive, and I started hearing the disparate works in similar terms: Tenney’s piece a picture of slow-shifting, rolling landscapes, Rzewski’s a state highway tour of successive small town centers. Parkins’s was a much more urban/suburban landscape—signs and billboards, in such profusion as to make zoning restrictions nominal. From era to era, it seems, fixed points move: regimentation turns mercurial, systems produce mystery, sprawl becomes expressive. The passage of time can also be a handoff.