This Friday Azica Records will release its second album of performances by the Attacca Quartet, whose members are violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram, and cellist Andrew Yee. As usual, the album has already been assigned a Web page on Amazon.com, which has been set up to process pre-orders. The title of the album is Songlines; and it consists of four compositions by Michael Ippolito, all of which are less than ten years old.
Azica’s first recording of Attacca came out in March of 2013. Its title (following the case conventions on the cover) was fellow traveler: the complete string quartet works of JOHN ADAMS. While Adams himself has endorsed Attacca’s performance of his music, I must confess to finding it a bit disconcerting to encounter the adjective “complete” applied to a composer who is still alive (particularly when the age of that composer is so close to my own)! Furthermore, if we take “string quartet works” to include music involving string quartet and orchestra, then the album overlooks “Absolute Jest,” which was first performed by the St. Lawrence String Quartet performing with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) conducted by SFS Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. (It would have been simpler, and more accurate, to say just “string quartets!”)
Nevertheless, it is worth dwelling on the “fellow traveler” part of the title, since Songlines seems to have been a product of such fellow travelers. Last year Attacca was named Quartet in Residence at Texas State University of Music, where Ippolito is currently Assistant Professor of Composition. So, at the very least, Ippolito and Attacca are “fellow travelers” in academic life. Nevertheless, all of the compositions on this album predate the arrival of Attacca at Texas State in 2016. (The group was formed in 2003 when all four members were students at the Juilliard School.)
This recording was my “first contact” with both the ensemble and the composer. I feel necessary to begin with a sort of disclaimer when it comes to the general topic of new music for string quartet. Those who follow this repertoire probably know that San Francisco is the “home base” of the Kronos Quartet; but it is also a city that enjoys a generous number of more recently-formed quartets that share Kronos’ interest in exploring and presenting new repertoire, often motivated by commission. To highlight two particularly appropriate examples, Friction Quartet celebrated its fifth anniversary this past September; and the Thalea String Quartet, which is currently quartet-in-residence at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, was featured as a “next generation” string quartet during KRONOS FESTIVAL 2017 at the beginning of this month.
This posed a difficulty when it came to listening to Ippolito’s music. The problem was that all five of the selections on this album suggested that the composer had been listening to too many Kronos recordings. This is probably a warped perception. However, it highlights the fact that, while there is, indeed, far more diversity to the string quartet repertoire than Kronos has covered, it was unclear that Ippolito had established a a voice that is distinctively his own in this genre. His biographical statement in the accompanying booklet suggests that he has cultivated a substantial catalog that includes orchestral writing, as well as chamber music; but, even across this single album, there is a sense that he has not explored very far beyond the bounds of a relatively limited comfort zone.
To be fair, this may be an occupational hazard in the world the Internet has made. Results of creativity are often subjected to almost immediate distribution on a global scale, meaning that just about anyone interested in “new music” has opportunities to explore far more than (s)he can handle. The downside to all this is that we run the risk of becoming a society in which the superficiality of “consumption” tends to trump the slower-paced culture of attentive listening. It used to be that universities provided sanctuary from market-based thinking that cares about little more than efficient production to satisfy consumption; but the “inconvenient truth” is that a university run by such market-based thinking often ends up questioning whether or not a music department provides “value for money.” In such desperate times my personal feelings about Ippolito’s work as a composer seem to pale against more serious questions concerned with whether or not our society is willing to view him as productive member.