The Eclipse Quartet played a show at Boston Court as part of Microfest. Unfortunately, I couldn't be there to hear it, so instead I went to their show on Sunday, 04/28 at Artshare. The two concerts had two pieces in common: Lou Harrison's String Quartet Set and Ben Johnston's String Quartet #4 (Amazing Grace). On Sunday they played Ken Walicki's nada Brahma, which was replaced by Kyle Gann's Love Scene on Saturday.
The Harrison quartet, like much of his music, holds my interest in how surprisingly effective it is. When sculpting something so straightforward, austere, and often plaintive, it is the craft and nuanced detail that really gives the music the level of quality one expects from a Lou Harrison piece. His contrapuntal writing is finely constructed, sounding even more so by his diverse contextualizations - couched in medieval Palestinian songs, French baroque rondos, Turkish rhythms, and introverted melodies.
Ben Johnston's Amazing Grace is a fascinating piece, starting as extremely straightforward and slowly drifting down the microtonal rabbit hole through a series of variations on the theme of Amazing Grace. It sounds like an appeal to the mass public, slowly guiding them with extremely familiar melodic material towards the gilded heights of just intoned clouds.
Ken Walicki's nada Brahma had little in common with the other two pieces, though it laid claim to a transcontinental leaning, similar the Harrison. Written for the Kronos Quartet in 1997, it sounded like it was written for the Kronos Quartet in 1997 - incorporating amplified string quartet and and electronic rhythm track to portray the overlap of rock and Indian influences.
I was sad to miss the Kyle Gann, as I find his tuning systems to be quite interesting. If anyone has any thoughts on that piece, please do share them in the comments!
Both evenings sounded like they would be tremendous undertakings, as the Johnston quartet alone is extremely difficult. Nonetheless, The Eclipse Quartet were able to approach the music on Sunday with skill and delicacy. It is exciting and rare to hear some of these pieces live, as it is to hear ensembles like this take it upon themselves to champion this music.
The Eclipse Quartet will soon be releasing an album with percussionist William Winant, featuring music by Frederic Rzewski, James Tenney, and Zeena. Their most recent recording was of Morton Feldman's Piano and String Quartet with pianist Vicki Ray.