Matthew Barnson’s second quartet for strings was commissioned by the Arditti Quartet after their successful performance of Sibyl Tones, his first foray into the genre, and was originally conceived as an extension of that earlier work. It is audibly cut from the same musical cloth: conventional tone production is largely eschewed in favor of extended techniques borrowed from the avant-garde of postwar Europe.
But for all the allegations of effete intellectualism that have been lodged stateside against the avant-garde aesthetic of the European school, there is no mistaking this work for a mere cerebral exercise. This is not a laboratory for musical textures, but an expression of furious passions.
Neither is there much trace here of that musical dogmatism of which the high modernists, and their successors, have so often been accused. The dense, noisy textures periodically yield to eerily tranquil pulsation, tuned to the simple pitches of each instrument’s natural harmonics, perhaps in a nod to innovators closer to home.
-Daniel Stephen Johnson
The program included the winner of the ensemble’s 2009 composition prize, the String Quartet No. 2, by Matthew Barnson (a former Saariaho student), heard in its U.S. premiere. Built almost entirely out of string harmonics and extended techniques, this is a strong and often fascinating work. Although Barnson’s approach recalls a number of composers — Xenakis in particular, who wrote entire quartets based largely on unconventional sound sources — his work is fresh and arises from a distinct personality. While its starting point is the instruments’ sonority, the piece also maintains great momentum through an alternating exchange and layering of instrumental gestures, as well as a deft use of surprising silences.
Congratulations are due to the Left Coast players for choosing a competition winner that isn’t simply a showoff piece, but instead is full of unusual technical and aesthetic challenges that were expertly addressed.