String Quartet No. 1 (The Passage)
ensemble: string quartet
duration: 15 minutes
written: summer - fall 2016
commissioned by: Amanda Hamilton and The Lux Quartet
premiered: November 19, 2016; Florida State University
I have avoided writing a string quartet for about 5 years now. After several failed attempts at the medium, I knew it wasn’t really “for me”, but still, I had been itching to delve deep and concur my fear. The string quartet has long been quite an austere, sturdy, daunting genre for many composers. Going back to Haydn, Mozart, and especially Beethoven, the string quartet functioned as both a very intimate and grandiose tool for expression and experimentation. Further down the musical history timeline, there have been masters of the form such as Schubert, Dvorák, Janácek, Bartók, and Carter who used the string quartet as a way to push not only their own musical language but the limits of classical art music as a whole.
For my string quartet, I was inspired by an exhibition I attended at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. The entirety of the second floor was devoted to the work of the Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat. Neshat’s work focuses on the contrasts between both Islam and the West as well as femininity and masculinity. I was deeply emotionally effected by the experience of seeing a series of very intense films and photographs depicting what it means to be a women in the Middle East. The two movements of the quartet travel from contrapuntally dense prayers to violent outbursts and protests to ultimately hope filled hymns and canons.
I. Nocturne - Prayer: The movement begins with a violin and viola singing a call to prayer using a small four note motive from Neshat’s short film Turbulence. This motive is weaved in canon as other members of the quartet enter creating dense counterpoint. As the movement progresses, the music becomes more agitated and violent until it falls out of control.
II. Hymn: The Book of Kings: After a series of dense and combative hymn-like variations, the music tries twice to become uplifting and hopeful with a series of upward canons which are constantly shifting harmony. After a final violent interruption, the music is suspended in mid-air while a solo violin ends the work in the similar, prayerful way it began.