There are seemingly more string quartets performing these days than ever before and they are fine musicians. Whether we’re talking about the Kronos Quartet, Arditti Quartet, Pacifica, Telegraph, etc. all contain truly finely trained and virtuosic musicians. The problem is to distinguish one’s self (or one’s ensemble) in some way. I’m not going to go into how each of the mentioned string quartets have done this so don’t worry.
My point here is to review this fine disc by yet another new music quartet called PULBIQuartet. They have chosen, at least in this, their second release, to continue their efforts at “genre bending”, exploring music and transcribing music that is atypical of the standard quartet repertoire. Like their colleagues they are aiming at a redefinition or perhaps a revitalization of the string quartet genre. The performers are: Curtis Stewart, Jannina Norpoth, violins; Nick Revel, viola; and Amanda Gookin, cello.
The album at hand, titled “Freedom and Faith” presents music predominantly written by or associated with women. Get into the Now (2017) by Jessica Meyer is classical in the sense that it uses the standard 2 violins, viola,and cello and is divided into three movements played with short pauses. Content wise this is a strong piece which requires a great deal of virtuosity and a handful of extended techniques involving percussive use of the bodies of the instruments themselves and even a few spots that require the musicians to vocalize. All in all a riot of a piece with good humor. It lasts about 20 minutes and begs to be heard again. Very entertaining!
The next 9 tracks fit into the PUBLIQuartet’s project called Mind|the|Gap which is at the heart of their efforts to breathe new life into the string quartet and, hopefully, garner some new fans. All members of the quartet share arrangement and, at times, co-compositional duties.
Tracks 4, 5, and 6 contain transcriptions of sacred vocal music by female composers. The Medieval Hildegard von Bingen’s, “O ignee Spiritus” is followed by Francesca Caccini’s, “Regina Coeli”, and then Chiara Margarita Cozzolani’s, “O quam suavis est Domine spiritus tuus”. The vocal originals must be quite lovely but these works seem to retain their sacred ambiance even without the words. So ends the section which contributes to the “faith” in the title of the album.
Who knew that “A tisket, a tasket…” was by Ella Fitzgerald’s arranger Van Alexander. The PUBLIs (if you’ll forgive the truncation) do a marvelous and entertaining arrangement of this novelty song. It provides a sort of comic relief dividing the faith segment of the program to the “freedom” segment.
The next 4 tracks focus on transcriptions of popular music. These are serious pieces, not the “pop” type songs that are basically feel good or dance tunes but the type of music that is in the shadow of serious social issues. Who better than Nina Simone? These are loving and strikingly original arrangements of Herb Sacker/Nina Simone’s, “Blackbird”, Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newly’s, “Feelin Good”, Nina Simone/Weldon Irvine’s, “Young Gifted and Black”, and Nina Simone’s powerful antiracist reproach in her, “Mississippi Goddam”.
These transcriptions are done in a free manner with echoes of Stephane Grappelli, Cajun music and, doubtless, references that this reviewer has not grasped. They are highly entertaining.
The album ends with another string quartet. This one is by Shelley Washington and it is a powerful piece. In its relatively short ten minutes or so she manages to create some memorable sound worlds. There are few program notes that give a clue as to the background and intended meanings of the purely instrumental works (those not derived from vocal music) but one senses political stirrings.
All in all a unique little recital which at least challenges the common notions of this chamber grouping and, frequently, succeeds.