Yesterday the Sono Luminus label released its third full studio album of the Del Sol String Quartet. Entitled Scrapyard Exotica, the album brings together compositions by three contemporary composers, Mason Bates (the source of the album’s title), Ken Ueno, and Mohammed Fairouz. Regular readers of this site may be familiar with the two preceding releases, Zia and the four string quartets that Peter Sculthorpe composed with an obbligato fifth part for didgeridoo. In addition, both the Bates and the Ueno compositions were performed in a recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in February of 2014, which was documented in my capacity as SF Classical Music Examiner.
One other connection is likely to provide relevant context for those considering listening to this new album. The Bates composition is a set of four short bagatelles for string quartet and electronic that he composed in 2011. As a result they probably coincide with his work on “Alternative Energy,” which he wrote for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) during his residence there. CSO released their recording of the premiere performance of “Alternative Energy” in August of 2014; and, in many respects, Bates’ bagatelles constitute “additional thoughts” on the work that went into “Alternative Energy.”
“Scrapyard Exotica” is the title of the second of those four bagatelles; and it is very much in the spirit of the opening movement of “Alternative Energy,” that depicts Henry Ford on his family farm tinkering around in his efforts to built the right kind of engine for what would eventually be the automobile. The orchestral writing in that movement is punctuated with a few suitably witty sound effects; and the bagatelles can be taken as a more extended exploration of relations between the string quartet and sampled sounds, often maintaining that same spirit of wit. The “Bagatelle” entry in Grove Music Online by Maurice J. E. Brown begins with the sentence, “A trifle, a short piece of music in light vein.” That description is definitely true to Bates’ approach to composing these pieces, as well as the rhetorical stance taken by the Del Sol String Quartet in performing them.
Ueno’s “Peradam,” on the other hand, is neither trifling nor short. However, it is definitely a reflection of Ueno’s ongoing interest in exploring the diversity of unconventional sonorities. Ueno himself is a vocal performer with a particular interest in throat singing, a technique through which the singer can explore a wide range of upper harmonics through the skilled manipulation of his/her vocal cavity. Upper harmonics contribute significantly to the gamut of sonorities involved in the composition of “Peradam,” as does throat singing by the members of the quartet (while they are playing their instruments). Even more fascinating are those moments when the four players are singing in one harmony while their instruments are playing in another.
Nevertheless, that adjective “short” threatens to loom over Ueno’s work. Lasting over twenty minutes without interruption, “Peradam” is the longest track on the album; and, unfortunately, it feels that way. There is no questioning that Ueno’s skill at seeking out innovative sonorities has led to a fascinating new logic for creating music for string quartet. However, without the support of rhetoric, logic can never be more than an intellectual exercise; and “Peradam” does not seem to have established a rhetorical stance from which the Del Sol String Quartet could endow it with an expressive interpretation.
On the other hand there is no shortage of expressiveness in the final selection on the album. The Named Angels is a four-movement suite that Fairouz conceived as a series of meditations on the four angels that can be encountered in the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The titles of the movements cite the Islamic names of these angels: Mikhail, Azrael, Jibreel, and Israfel. (These are better known in the Western cultures, not to mention among regular viewers of Dominion, as Michael, Israfel, Gabriel, and Azrael.)
Last year this site wrote about the inclusion of Fairouz’ music on Lara Downes’ Exiles’ Cafe album. Born in the United States, Fairouz is not, strictly speaking, an exile. However, when writing about his Native Informant album for Naxos’ American Classics series, I used the adjective “hyphenated” (as in Arab-American) in describing his approach to composition; and The Named Angels is representative of that approach. One can easily appreciate how his approaches to both logic and rhetoric reflect his academic training from both the New England Conservatory of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music, even including a (hopefully) sly nod to Leonard Bernstein. However, both logic and rhetoric are also “informed” by not only thematic tropes with Middle Eastern sources but also that particular rhetorical approach to portamento that can be traced all the way back to the Moorish influences on musical practices during the Middle Ages. Thus, while in many respects Bates’ bagatelles share with his “Alternative Energy” a historical perspective on the Industrial Age, Fairouz’ perspective reaches back millennia, rather than just centuries.