This is a marvelous disc which functions well on several levels. First it is a fine disc of new string quartet music played by wonderful musicians (who wrote most of the music here as well). Second it is a disc of music which is designed to put forth sociopolitical reactions/opinions. This Zoho label production succeeds quite well in these areas.
Starting with the lovely cover art by Aodán Collins, this Sirius Quartet album is their first full album since 2016. It is, above all, a political statement, or rather, a series of political statements in the form of inventive compositions by these wonderfully talented musicians. Each track is incredibly entertaining and each has a closely associated subtext of sorts reflecting a variety of sociopolitical issues. The Sirius Quartet consists of Fung Chern Hwei and Gregor Huebner, violins; Ron Lawrence, viola; and Jeremy Harman, cello.
This disc contains ten works on ten tracks, each with an underlying political component. All appear to have been written from 2016 to the present though the composition dates are not given explicitly.
The first work, Beside the Point, is by first violinist Fung Chern Hwei and it is a friendly scherzo-like piece which sets the tone for what is to come. The composer describes this piece as his statement against discrimination and it is a plea for equality. It is a relatively brief but very compelling work.
Next up is a track written by cellist Jeremy Harman called Currents. It is another scherzo-like affair, slightly longer than the first piece and its political subtext is described by the composer as evoking currents of elements both dark and light whose powers affect us daily. Another well-written and very exciting piece.
The eponymous New World, November 9, 2016 is essentially an angry lament in response to the election of Donald Trump as president on that date. The work quotes judiciously and effectively from Dvorak and Shostakovich in the longest work here coming in at 10:16. It relies on some extended techniques at times but is an essentially tonal work as are its companions on this disc. This piece is also distinguished as having won the 2017 New York Philharmonic’s “New World Initiative” competition’s grand prize and it is acknowledged as the seed work which eventually spawned this entire album.
#Still by second violinist Gregor Huebner is perhaps the most gut wrenching piece here. It’s based on the Abel Meeropol song, Strange Fruit (whose title refers to lynched bodies hanging from trees) iconically recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. Sadly its themes remain painfully relevant today and this heartfelt plea for peace and equality is a strikingly powerful work with an adagio section which rivals the Barber Adagio in its beauty.
Huebner’s cover of the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby occupies the next track. It is very much in keeping with the political theme of the album with the song’s words about a sad individual “buried along with her name”. As such it is also one of the finest transcriptions/covers for string quartet that this reviewer has heard. This is some seriously interesting writing which elevates this to a well crafted piece in it’s own right and not merely a “this string quartet plays…” generic piece. Jazz inflections seem to invoke Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt at times and a few extended techniques remind us that we are listening in the 21st century.
More Than We Are by cellist Jeremy Harman is described as an “aspirational” composition which was written after the birth of the composer’s son, Silas. It is an emotional piece, perhaps a paean to hope.
To a New Day by Fung Chern Hwei is, of all things, a celebration of hope for healing politics in the composer’s native country of Malaysia (politics outside of the US and Europe are important too after all). May 9, 2018 was the date of an election whose result will hopefully heal political wounds and put that country on a more humane and progressive agenda. There may be more specific references embedded in the music here but that must be left for listeners and musicologists to debate in the future. It is another gorgeous example of good string quartet writing.
Hwei describes this next piece, “30th Night, Worshiping Heaven and Earth” as a “repurposed prayer”. It is, he says, an “unapologetically Chinese/Malaysian piece” which uses a combination of Chinese folk melody and specific attention to language to suggest a subversive theme which seeks to encourage a humane approach from a traditionally oppressive government. It is the only track with vocals.
The penultimate track is another brilliant arrangement (by Huebner) of a rock/pop song, Radio Head’s “Knives Out”. The political content is expressed by reference to the song’s lyrics and also by musical references which are inserted throughout. Again an experience of the cover genre that rises above the ordinary.
The album ends with an arrangement by Fung Chern Hwei of the late Stanley Myers’ lovely Cavatina from his score to “The Deer Hunter”. Like the previous covers this one stands head and shoulders above the usual level of musical discourse for this genre.
All in all an immensely satisfying album. Kudos to Grammy winning producer and writer (he wrote the wonderful liner notes here) Kabir Seghal and, of course, to the musicianship of this fine ensemble of composer/musicians. Art continues to struggle in these uncertain times but its struggle can bring forth some amazing creativity and this one sounds like a winner.