As was observed yesterday, the Del Sol String Quartet (violinists Benjamin Kreith and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Kathryn Bates) will be holding a release event this coming Saturday for their latest album on Sono Luminus, Dark Queen Mantra, which will be available on Friday:
courtesy of Jensen Artists
For those who are impatient, Amazon.com is, as usual, processing pre-orders. The album features one of Terry Riley’s earliest compositions for string quartet, a coupling of two short movements entitled, respectively, “The Wheel” and “Mythic Birds Waltz.” (I have heard Del Sol play the “Mythic Birds Waltz” on its own.) This early work is coupled with the Riley composition for which the album is named, which he wrote in 2015. Dark Queen Mantra is a three-movement suite for string quartet and guitar; and, on this album, the guitar part is taken by Riley’s son Gyan. Between these two Riley compositions, Del Sol plays Mas Lugares, a five-movement suite involving transformations of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi composed by Stefano Scodanibbio. Del Sol had played all three of these selections in a recital they gave at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in December of 2015, and the recording sessions for this album were held about two months later.
Taken as a whole, the “program” for this album is a decidedly lyrical one. In that respect it is highly appropriate that the “core” of that program should be based on the texts of the Italian poems that Monteverdi had chosen to set as madrigals. Furthermore, Scodanibbio’s approach to “transformation” involved a significant departure from “transcription.” He was clearly aware of Monteverdi’s skills as a contrapuntist; but he chose to explore those skills in terms of note-against-note relationships based on natural harmonics. Those explorations led Scodanibbio to new approaches to dissonance. Thus, while the words that Monteverdi set are not part of Scodanibbio’s composition, the emotional intensity behind those words comes through with greater strength than we tend to encounter in “straightforward” performances of Monteverdi’s scores.
One encounters similar effects in “Dark Queen Mantra,” the title of the final movement in the suite of the same name. This movement is, indeed, the mantra of the suite, dwelling on the repetition of a simple phrase through which the listener can transcend the complexity of the here-and-now. Nevertheless, here, too, the impact of intonation arises, again through bowing techniques involving frequencies based on nodal points, rather than the pitches of an equal-tempered chromatic scale. In addition the use of sul ponticello bowing imposes even harsher overtones that emerge as the darkness suggested by the movement’s title. As a result, this final movement contrasts sharply with the almost nostalgic qualities suggested by the suite’s first two movements.
Contrast is similarly at heart of the final selection. “The Wheel” amounts to a slow jazz ballad, perhaps reflecting the early days of Riley’s career, when he supported himself by playing in piano bars. The “Mythic Birds Waltz,” on the other hand, is a splendid exercise in rhythmic complexity that pretty much defies anyone to try to waltz to it. Indeed, if there is any trace of Vienna at all in this piece, it is decidedly obscured by other influences, the most significant of which probably involve Riley’s interest in the rhythmic patterns of classical Indian music, which he studied with Pandit Pran Nath.
As a result there is much to be gained from beginning-to-end listening where this album is concerned; and the combination of the keen ears of the Del Sol players and the engineering skills in the recording studio make that listening experience a highly satisfying one.