About this Recording
8.559636 - GLASS, P.: String Quartets Nos. 1-4 (Carducci String Quartet)

Philip Glass (b. 1937)
String Quartets Nos. 1–4


Although he remains most widely known for a series of innovative works for the stage (notably those in collaboration with producer Robert Wilson), and prior to that a sequence of groundbreaking scores for his own ensemble of electric keyboards, wind instruments and voices, Philip Glass has latterly made significant contributions to both the orchestral and chamber repertoire. The former category comprises eight symphonies and numerous concertos, while the latter features five string quartets. Preceding them were a further three quartets, but these were student works that the composer no longer acknowledges. As with many others before him, Glass has spoken openly of the weight of history hanging over this particular genre—a quality reflected in his own quartets. Interesting, too, is the degree to which they gradually divest themselves of qualities most often associated with Minimalism; their outward repetition taking in an increasing variety of melody and accompaniment.

Something of an exception to this, as in numerous respects, is the First Quartet. Composed in 1966, it comes from the period when, having completed his studies in Paris with the esteemed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, Glass was in the process of seeking out a compositional ‘way forward’ that avoided the strictures of serial (i.e. twelve-note) music without re-embracing traditional tonality. He had recently been involved in transcribing music by Ravi Shankar for Western instruments, an experience detectable in the present work’s recurrent melodic patterns. A further influence was surely the work of an earlier generation of American experimentalists, notably John Cage, whose String Quartet in Four Parts (1949) also makes use of a limited range of harmonic and rhythmic motifs that are heard in constantly changing formations and continually varied contexts, while having a pronounced Asiatic quality.

The first part unfolds as a series of exchanges between the four instruments that is subtly though extensively varied as to texture and register. The rhythmic profile feels considerably less stable than it was to become in the composer’s later music, while the use of silence to destabilize the ongoing discourse is equally unexpected, yet a sense of music that moves away from and back to its point of departure is already apparent, so ensuring a degree of continuity for all the music’s more unpredictable tendencies. The second part (which is directed to follow after a two-minute pause, indicative of a latent theatrical dimension) unfolds as the virtual ‘reflection’ of its predecessor: the same repertory of melodic and rhythmic gestures may be deployed yet the angle of approach is now more inward and unforced, with the music here seeming even less intent on moving forward than in pursuing a circular orbit around its salient motifs.

The First Quartet was to remain an anomaly in Glass’s output for almost two decades. Its successors then came in relatively swift measure, though it is worth noting that the first two of these are both derived from theatrical sources. In the instance of the Second Quartet (1983), the music emerged as four short interludes for Mabou Mines’s staging of Samuel Beckett’s prose-poem Company, a meditation on mortality whose sombre and fatalistic tone inevitably determined the character of Glass’s music. Thus the first movement unfolds as an undulating rhythm on lower strings, over which violins pursue a doleful melodic idea. The second movement is appreciably more animated in its outlining of related melodic and rhythmic ideas, while the third movement seems more in the way of an intermezzo that wends its wistful though on occasion restive way. The final movement sets the upper and lower strings in purposeful contrast as the music follows an anxious and finally inconclusive course.

The Third Quartet (1985) has its origin in music for Paul Schrader’s film that depicts the life and self-imposed death of the Japanese author, playwright and latter-day Samurai warrior Yukio Mishima. Glass’s contribution covers all aspects of the film’s inter-cutting between past and present as well as (Mishima’s) fiction and reality, in a score that also features full orchestra and string ensemble, but it is those sections for string quartet that probe most fully the uncompromising character and beliefs of the man himself. Little wonder, then, Glass wrote them with the idea that they could be extracted to form a separate concert work. The first movement proceeds along the composer’s familiar ‘circling’ motion, albeit with a greater degree of harmonic activity and expressive intensification than the previous quartet. The second movement is an elegy that is the more affecting for its brevity, while the third movement brings a determined rhythmic propulsion to bear on the vigorous exchanges between upper and lower strings. The fourth movement arranges its instrumental layers as a cumulative process; something which the fifth movement then picks up on with audibly greater intensity on the way to a powerful and yet pointedly unresolved ending. The final movement is by way of an epilogue, one which draws upon much of the previously accumulated expression and rhythmic motion in an intense though subdued leave-taking.

By the time he came to compose his Fourth Quartet (1989), Glass had embarked on a systematic opening out of the components of his musical language. This piece was a commission in memory of the artist Brian Buczak (who had died of HIV-related complications) by his colleague Geoffrey Hendricks (whose pioneering multi-media work throughout the 1960s had given rise to a sequence of ‘Cloud’ images, one of which was to be immortalised as the backdrop for the cover of John Lennon’s 1971 album Imagine). Despite this direct connection with the experimental art-world, however, the present work most evidently touches on the quartet medium’s illustrious heritage—though it is the quartets of Schubert and also Dvořák, rather than those of Beethoven, which are more directly alluded to (a process furthered in the Fifth Quartet that Glass completed in 1991 and which remains his most recent contribution to the genre).

The first movement begins with commanding unison gestures, from where the music unfolds with an expressive immediacy in which melodic and rhythmic components are freely interchanged. The initial unisons reappear around mid-point, thereby intensifying the discourse as it heads towards its animated ending. The second movement focuses on a wistful melodic pattern for the upper strings over a ruminative four-note accompaniment. In due course the melodic idea migrates downward to the lower strings and the harmonic range is expanded accordingly, though without threatening to disturb the overall serenity. The finale is essentially an amalgam of the preceding movements, bringing together a range of melodic and rhythmic ideas into one of the composer’s most varied spans of instrumental writing. Silence, too, is now deployed to intensify expressive momentum on the way to a resigned yet conclusive close.

Richard Whitehouse

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