Politics and Its Discontents: Sirius Quartet’s New World


siriusnewworld

ZOHO ZM 201908

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.

 

 

A Major Peter Garland Work


garlandlandscape

The Whole Earth Catalog turned 50 this year.  It was in the 1980 edition of this classic publication that this writer stumbled across and embraced a small article which listed, “A Basic 10 Records of American Composers”.  It was written by one Peter Garland and forever influenced most of my subsequent listening choices and purchases.  For the record they are:

The Complete Music of Carl Ruggles (recently released on CD Other Minds OM 1020-21-2)

Piano Music of Henry Cowell (Folkways FM 3349)

Ameriques, Arcana, Ionisation by Edgar Varese (Columbia M 34552)

Peaens, Stars, Granites: Music by Dane Rudhyar and Ruth Crawford Seeger (CRI  S 247)

Ives: Three Places in New England, Copland: Appalachian Spring (Sound 80 DLR 101)

Music of Silvestre Revueltas (RCA)

Conlon Nancarrow: Complete Studies for Player Piano (Other Minds CD 1012-1015-2)

Lou Harrison: Pacifika Rondo and other works (Desto DC 6478)

Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury (Columbia M2 30576)

John Cage: Three Dances for Two Pianos, Steve Reich: Four Organs (Angel S 36059)

And I start here to illustrate the range of this still too little known composer, musicologist, writer, musician.  Peter Garland (1952- ) doesn’t even have a dedicated website as of this writing and this list helps to put him in a context.  But a quick look at Google, Wikipedia, and Baker’s Biographical Dictionary will confirm that Garland is indeed a prolific composer as well as an accomplished and dedicated musicologist. The list of albums reflect far ranging tastes and interests. That 1980 article serves to reflect how his scholarship reached effectively beyond academia and reached a much wider audience and the same wide embrace is slowly being realized about his musical output.

pgarland

Peter Garland

He studied at Cal Arts with James Tenney and Harold Budd.  He started Soundings Press after attending a workshop with Dick Higgins.  Soundings press published articles by Garland and other musicologists.  Garland has focused on Native American and Latin American indigenous musics and is regarded as an expert in these areas.  Hie own music employs a variety of styles including minimalism and some use of folk melodies but he doesn’t really sound like anyone else.

His compositions almost seem secondary to his academic pursuits and, despite tantalizing descriptions of Garland’s performances in places like EAR magazine his music was hard to come by for some time. There have been a few recordings and, for those who don’t know his work, here is a little discography:

  • 1982 Matachin Dances (EP, Cold Blue)
  • 1986 Peñasco Blanco (Cold Blue, reissued on Nana + Victorio, 1993)
  • 1992 Border Music (¿What Next?, reissued on OO Disc, 2002)
  • 1992 Walk in Beauty (New Albion)
  • 1993 Nana + Victorio (Avant)
  • 2000 The Days Run Away (Tzadik)
  • 2002 Another Sunrise (Mode)
  • 2005 Love Songs (Tzadik)
  • 2008 Three Strange Angels (Tzadik) reissue of Border Music expanded with live recordings
  • 2009 String Quartets (Cold Blue)
  • 2011 Waves Breaking on Rocks (New World)
  • 2015 After the Wars (Cold Blue) EP with Sarah Cahill
  • 2017 The Birthday Party (New World)

Fortunately there are a few record producers who have recognized Garland’s talents.  And it should come as no surprise that these producers are of the independent label variety.  Starkland Records is indeed one of those independents with a reliable nose/ear for good new music and have chosen to record a major opus, The Landscape Scrolls.

This choice embodies much of what is great about Peter Garland.  In this work we get exposed to his scholarship of the stories and symbols of the scrolls as well as some insight to his interest in experimental and unusual instruments.  This is in fact a percussion piece but not the percussion music of your mother’s generation.

Commissioned by and dedicated to percussionist John Lane, The Landscape Scrolls (2010-2011) depicts the 24-hour day cycle in five movements. Garland remarks the work was influenced by Indian ragas, Japanese haiku poetry, and, especially, the famous Landscape Scroll of the Four Seasons by Japan’s 15th century painter Sesshu.

Each of the five movements is a metaphorical monochromatic study, more about resonance and space than melody or harmony: mid-day (Chinese drums); afternoon (rice bowls); after dark (triangles); late (glockenspiel); early morning (tubular bells). Garland notes that, after the fact, he was likely influenced by his fascination with the single-tonal color paintings of Barnett Newman.

John Luther Adams, himself a composer of some significant percussion music lately, provides most of the lucid liner notes.  Clearly Garland is respected by his fellow artists.  This release provides a fine opportunity to get to know this American master through this major opus.  As usual the Starkland production is very well recorded and sounds great.  This one was really done right.