Thursday, November 21, 2013

Robert Erickson: the quartets

I HAVE BEEN remiss in not recording a few observations here about the four compositions for string quartet by Robert Erickson. I feel a little odd posting them, as I am definitely parti pris. I studied composition with Bob, a bit, back in the middle 1960s. I suspect I partly owed it to him that I was hired as music director at KPFA in 1964: he'd occupied the position ten years earlier, was on the KPFA Board of Directors for a few years, and chose my two predecessors in the position.

Then, in the late 1980s, I wrote a biography of Erickson, with a survey of his music. Thinking Sound Music was published in 1995 by Fallen Leaf Press, and is still in print, now distributed in paperback, cloth, and as an e-book by Scarecrow Press. 

Furthermore, the Del Sol Quartet, who have been commissioned to record all four works for New World Records, invited me to sit in on rehearsals for the performance they gave last Sunday in Berkeley. I can hardly pretend any objectivity in my response to that concert.

But I've convinced myself that it would be unfair to Bob and the Quartet to withhold that response, so here it is. I thought they really got into the scores, found out how to make them their own, and put the pieces across far more persuasively than I would have believed possible. I've heard them played by other performers, and thought that performance powerful and interesting: but Del Sol went further, finding a logical and utterly musical progression from the earliest to the latest, connecting Erickson's quartet thinking to Berg and Schoenberg but more importantly to his own time as new musical values were being defined and developed by the avant garde.

The First Quartet was composed in 1950, shortly after or perhaps partly during a composition seminar the 33-year-old composer had taken at UC Berkeley with Roger Sessions. It has always struck me as rebarbative, intellectual, a bit labored; clearly referring to Berg's Quartet Op. 1 but also to late Beethoven, full of imitation and  thematic transformations of small melodic motives. 

The Second, composed at UC Berkeley six years later, when Erickson was briefly on the music faculty there, represents a big step forward but is still clearly in the academic modern style for the most part. Late in the piece, though, the first violin is given an extended solo clearly reaching toward a different kind of music. I was reminded, hearing Del Sol play this piece Sunday, that Beethoven similarly reaches toward a more transcendant kind of music in his late quartets. Erickson's Second Quartet doesn't do more than state the idea; he returns to earth after that solo. But each member of the Quartet relates as a highly individuated soloist to his or her part, connecting Erickson to Ives and, I think, in an odd way, Elliott Carter, while still integrating the independent and individual vision to the combined context of the four instruments. 

In 1985, nearly twenty years later, Erickson returned to the medium in two final pieces for quartet, Solstice and Corfu. During those tweenty years he had explored writing virtuoso solo pieces, assembling tape-music scores, composing game structures, and further devloping his keen ear for both timbres and structural embodiments of sound. All that blossoms in these two final works for string quartet, which are rooted in drones, recurring tonal bases, octaves and fifthes, but which soar out of those roots in hypnotic melodic writing, melismatic and fanciful, often recalling Arabic music.

Somehow the Del Sol Quartet made a logical and persuasive case for these four pieces presenting an integrated, connected statement, beginning with the mid-20th century fascination with the relationships of melodic motives and their manipulation, ending with late-20th-century iminimalism and mysticism. Two extraordinarily ethical disciplines combined to make this happen: Erickson's intelligence and creative discipline and Del Sol's attentive and very skilful adaptation of the music to their instruments. The dynamic range was huge, the rhythms and tempi exact and careful, the phrasing expressive. I was tremendously impressed, and look forward to the release next year of their recording.


Curtis Faville said...

Unfamiliar with Erickson, I listened to two pieces on YouTube, Garden, and Pacific Sirens.

Both reminded me a bit of Copland's Quiet City, though of course less schmaltzy.

Charles Shere said...

I always forget about QC, which is I think one of Copland's better scores. Yes, condsiderably less schmaltzy.