Now this is a really good CD. The second new release I was sent recently from Mark Wastell’s Confront label is another in the Collector’s Series of burn-to-order CDrs, a piece of music composed by Zachary James Watkins named Suite for String Quartet. This composition has apparently been in a continual state of revision since 2004, with this recording presenting a live performance of the piece made in Berlin in 2009. The music is performed by a traditionally structured string quartet made up of Johnny Chang and Gerhard Uebele’s violins, Miriam GÃ¶tting’s viola and Martin Smith’s cello, with Watkins then adding electronics into the mix. Its a lovely recording, beautifully captured, mixed and mastered as well as superbly played, and I must admit that until hearing the audience applause at the end of the half-hour long piece, I was leaning towards the music having been assembled at least to some degree in post production.
This detail interests me less than it will others, but apparently as part of the composition Watkins had all sixteen strings in the quartet tuned to “an odd number partial of 60hz”. This means little to me but is I am sure what leads to the music’s slightly harsh edge and particular character. What really grabs me about this music is its original and exciting structure, which when executed by talented musicians, as it seems to be here leads to a thoroughly enjoyable and listenable piece of music.
So the CD begins with the sound of trickling water, under which a rather beautiful field recording of what sounds like distant traffic passing slowly through rain-sodden streets. It may be that the recording is all one, perhaps rainwater pouring from a gutter after a storm. However, this passage only lasts for about a minute or so before the strings begin to emerge from within the field recording, rising out of it gradually in a semi-drone form. As the strings begin to dominate so the field recording disappears, having been there for next to no time at all, never to appear again in the piece, which to my ears consists only of acoustic strings and buzzing, tonal electronics that mimmic the strings very well. The placement of this little passage at the start of the piece is intriguing and really quite beautiful in its brevity, a little like a line from a poem placed at the start of a work of prose to set the mood.
The music then grows into a lovely passage of billowing drones made up of constant lines from the strings, all playing the same note but using the different, but related tunings, so beating patterns appear in the closely miked sound. Below this Watkins’ electronics softly glow, the pitch chosen perfectly so as to blend into the acoustic sound perfectly, often disappearing, only to become apparent again as the various tones cross, merge and shift out of sync again. Although the music is essentially a drone around one note there is so much going on in there. After eighteen minutes the drone dies away however and an urgent, shuddering stream of strings appears, first one instrument then all of them, building into an almost violent crescendo of shaking agitation. For a short while these little arcs of sound emerge and die away again until around the twenty-two minute mark the music evolves into a quite extraordinary passage of closely recorded swoops of sound as several instruments come together in frightening downward spirals, usually with one or more further sets of strings very slowly wrenched at with the bow. So we get a passage of sound that resembles a squadron of World War II Stuka bombers all diving together while someone very slowly opens a heavy, but very squeaky old door. Stupid similes aside, this is a stunning passage of music quite unlike much I have heard outside of Lachenmann, whose quartets often spring to mind while listening here.
At the twenty-six minute mark all hell breaks out, a wild free-for-all of stabbing, twisting, wrenching strings tumbling together from all angles, a free improvisation that suddenly shifts from the tonal to all four string players grinding their bows down onto the strings, every last sinew and thread audible, until a slither of extremely high notes, maybe the highest a violin can achieve brings the work to an end.
Suite for String Quartet is a fantastic, powerful piece of music that drags you kicking and screaming through various different stages of quite different areas of music, and yet it all feels like it belongs together. The music doesn’t feel forced, and often doesn’t even feel composed. It is very well played here, with the four instruments sounding very close together, perhaps a combined result of the quality of the musicians and the systems using int he arrangements. Above all it is an exciting, thoroughly engaging work that I found myself listening to on repeat again and again. While home for a few hours yesterday morning I think I played it back to back seven times and didn’t tire of it at all, with the more dramatic sections actually gaining in intensity after each listen. This is a very fine, thoroughly original and captivating piece of music. I had never heard of Zachary James Watkins before playing this CD, but his name is one I shall look out for in future. Great stuff.