Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Eclipse Quartet and Its Contemporary Cosmos

Review by Rodney Punt

Less flamboyant than the Kronos and more feline than the Arditti, the Eclipse Quartet is L.A.’s answer to both in twentieth-century and present-day music. Its four members -- violinists Sara Parkins and Sarah Thornblade, violist Alma Lisa Fernandez, and cellist Maggie Parkins -- have teamed in this ensemble for eight years, but still have combusting fires in their bellies, at least by the evidence of recent performances.

I reviewed their impressive concert of Annie Gosfield’s industrial-inspired music at the West Adams Café-Club Fais Do-Do last fall. The Eclipse and their audiences, by the way, favor such gritty, out-of-the-way venues. Two more housed their recent outings.

The Royal T, a retail site and restaurant on Culver City’s artistically alive Washington Boulevard, was the acoustically cozy setting in mid-January for a single long work by Morton Feldman, with the Eclipse joined by pianist Vicky Ray. Morton, a musical Abstract Expressionist, was a product of the heady New York arts scene of the 1950’s. One of his last works, the Piano and String Quartet of 1985, is a grand summation of what he had first revered in Anton Webern’s highly distilled miniatures, grown over the years into his own vast landscapes. As Feldman wrote: “Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it’s scale.”

The listener tries to “figure out” the work in its first hour. Ever-varying but singularly lonely piano arpeggios thrust upward from a pillow of harmonically morphing strings. Slowly, subtly, an hour into the work, a rocking cosmic-cradle rhythm is introduced in the strings. At this point the listener begins to let go of his will and give up on analysis. Lovely motivic moments enter and depart from the cello and her string siblings. The listener’s subconscious has been kidnapped beyond cognitive resistance, and almost physical endurance. The work’s lapidary complexly is Bachian and yet also minimalist in its glacial pacing, suggesting the still, quiet desolation of a Rothko painting.

The Eclipse Quartet and pianist Vicky Ray, on a psychedelically painted and visually jarring piano, were in full control of this carefully paced, well articulated performance, even as their audience eventually surrendered any conscious control on how to navigate their receptivity along the way.

Moving north for a concert a dozen days later, the Eclipse inhabited a bright acoustic at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts in a program of four challenging works. Premiered was a piece by Stephen Cohn, along with a modern classic by John Cage (Morton Feldman’s lifelong friend and musical soul-mate) and some recent works by Meredith Monk and Lois Vierk.

Cohn’s Winter Soul (2010) is a precision-cut jewel of twelve minutes duration, based on a four-note opening motif and two related themes. It unfolds in crisp modern sonorities by means of playful but rigorous devices, in the manner of baroque treatment. Variations, transformations and stacked chains of melodies, modulated and inverted in their entrances, elaborate the musical argument. Cross rhythms and tone clusters tickle the senses while a four-note atonal canon adds a wistful element. Despite the formal treatment, the work’s emotional climate struck me as not so much about a winter’s melancholy as a frisky solstice jog that stimulates the mind and warms the heart. It deserves a concert life; hopefully the Eclipse will keep it in their standard repertoire (assuming that anything could become standard for these relentless musical explorers.)

Monk’s Stringsongs (2005) explores technical devices in its four engaging movements: double-stopping for rotational “Cliff Lights”, non-sequitur solos in “Tendrils”, a close-harmony session for “Obsidian Chorale”, and wispy-scratches for “Phantom Strings.” Written for the Kronos Quartet, it found a congenial home-away-from-home in the Eclipse’s focused performance.

A forerunner of the “still” music later favored by the minimalists is Cage’s austere String Quartet in Four Sections (1950). Its four seasonal movements express not so much directionality as state of mind. “Quietly Flowing Along – Summer” rests in its languid stupor, points of light piercing as through occasional heavenly-sky portals in a leafy tree. “Slowly Rocking – Autumn” is a plaintive folk lament tinged by sharp-edged cuts. “Nearly Stationary – Winter” is a lonely visage of bleakness in high-registered, continuously dissonant, softly spoken chords. “Quodlibet – Spring” takes us full circle in the annual cycle to a short and sweet announcement of renewing life.

Finally, Vierk’s River Beneath the River (1993) paints its deep aqua flows with tremolos and glissandos, eventually working its way into a kind of harvest square dance with cello drones and gaily flaying fiddles.

With this affirmation, the program’s curious nocturnal trip concluded. The eclipse had passed, but we look forward to the Eclipse returning again, and soon.


Who: Eclipse Quartet -- Sara Parkins, violin; Sarah Thornblade, violin; Alma Lisa Fernandez, viola; Maggie Parkins, cello (with Vicki Ray, piano, January 13 only)

What: Piano and String Quartet by Morton Feldman (1985)
When: January 13, 2011
Where: Royal T, 8910 Washington Blvd, Culver City

What: Eclipse Quartet
When: January 25, 2011
Where: Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena

Above photo courtesy of Eclipse Quartet
Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]


Anne French said...

Hi Rod,
Great piece on the Eclipse Quartet! Since you mention their performance of Morton Feldman's Quartet, I was reminded that Feldman was the Edgar Varese Professor of Composition at my alma mater, the University of Buffalo, from 1972 until his death in 1987. These were the years when Buffalo was a hotbed of new music, and also the years during which I "came of age" musically. Here is a link that I thought you might find interesting. I think it's amazing that a blue-collar steel town, as Buffalo was, could support this kind of cutting edge artistic expression. These lectures and others like them were very well attended. All the lectures listed on this link can be clicked on for an audio file of Feldman speaking.

Rodney Punt said...

Thanks, Anne. Just saw this comment and will soon listen to Feldman on your link. Best, Rodney