Monday, March 27, 2006

Women's History Month: Cassandra Sings & Two Bits

Women's History Month at HurdAudio continues with a listen to a work for string quartet and a work for string quintet with percussion.

"Cassandra Sings" (1988) by Tina Davidson. Scored for string quartet. Performed by the Cassatt String Quartet on Cassatt released in 1994 on the CRI label.

This piece opens with an expressive cello solo accompanied at times by extremely quiet tones from the other three instruments that eventually crescendo into a rich harmonic texture. There's an interesting restlessness to this music. At times contrapuntal, at other times focused and melodic with brief flashes of ostinato that rarely settle into steady state patterns for long. The focal point moves easily from part to part and often submerges beneath waves of propulsive sonic lines.

This piece uses a sophisticated vocabulary for string quartet that builds upon the modern tradition for this chamber ensemble. The tension of the first half of this work is pulled extremely taut as the second half unwinds toward a sustained release. The material from the initial cello solo works its way into the violin and viola parts just before falling away toward a pianissimo coda that slowly dissolves the harmonic beauty of this work toward its natural conclusion. This is really some great writing for string quartet.

"Two Bits" (1991) by Allison Cameron. Scored for 4 percussionists, 2 violin, viola, cello and bass. Found on Bang on a Can Live volume 1 from 1992 on the CRI label.

This work is a microscopic focus on timbre as the percussion parts work the extremes of extended quiet passages with the abruptness of contrasting loud crashes over a backdrop of slowly rising string glissandi. A steady beat on metallic blocks and bowls persists through much of this texture as an eerie world of bowed cymbals, crescendoing rolls across unpitched membranes and pizzicato rolls on the bass puncture the sonic space at odd intervals. The strong attack followed by an echo-like series of fading away strikes in the percussion is a persistent presence.

The waves of percussion sound swirl as the string material slowly rises in pitch (and tension level) as the nasal sounds of sul ponticello and soft arpeggios slowly bring the string quintet material into the perceptual foreground. After a surge of activity the percussion settles toward an unsteady pulse as the strings continue to surge upward. The sound takes on the feel of wind chimes reacting to a long breeze in a vast, other worldly landscape. This piece is turbulent on a scale that allows for tranquility. The imaginative use of the bass to anchor the rising glissandi gives the overall sound of a spectral shift as the rising tones form the harmonic contour of an evolving timbre. At less than 14-minutes this feels like a mere glimpse of something much larger.

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