Friday, September 30, 2016

Friction Quartet Celebrates its First Five Years at the Center for New Music

Last night the Center for New Music (C4NM) hosted the first of two Friction Turns 5 concerts. The group was formed in 2011 by violinist Kevin Rogers and cellist Doug Machiz. The other two members are violinist Otis Harriel, who alternates with Rogers in leading the ensemble, and violist Taija Warbelow. The concerts mark the conclusion of Friction’s C4NM residency.

The quartet is very much a “new music” ensemble; and this was clearly affirmed by the program they prepared for last night. It included one world premiere, one West Coast premiere, another work written for Friction, and one written on a commission from the Kronos Quartet. Only the encore involved a composer who is now deceased (Maurice Ravel).

The evening began with the world premiere of Stephen Feigenbaum’s “Forever Reaching,” described on the C4NM event page as “a piece saturated with sorrow, and one that the composer has asked to be used for memorial services.” The music is a latter-day reflection on the lament form of Baroque tradition, usually involving variations on a bass line that descends through four steps, usually from a minor scale. Feigenbaum, on the other hand, worked with a much longer (but still stepwise) descending pattern; and he did not confine it to the bass. (Conceivably Feigenbaum took Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten” as a point of departure.) Furthermore, the descent is not a steady one, as there is considerable variation in rhythmic patterning and even the underlying pulse. The most recognizable feature is simply that the descent is a slow one.

Feigenbaum departed from the bass register in preference for a pitch range that would be comfortable for all four instruments. One by one, the instruments enter slowly to intone the descent, all starting on exactly the same pitch. The variations in rhythm lead to a sense of both tight stretto and a thick texture through which one loses track of how each instrument is descending through the “theme.” However, once the pattern of descent has been established, Feigenbaum begins to alter it, changing the alternation of whole steps and half steps in a way that begins to blur the modal quality of the descent itself. The thickening of texture is matched by an increase in dynamic level until finally all four players are descending with a more deliberate sense of synchronization but each in a different “mode.” Achieving this effect demands intense discipline, but Friction’s command of Feigenbaum’s intentions was positively bone-chilling.

The West Coast premiere was “Besides” by Loren Loiacono. She wrote the composition for the Altius Quartet, and it was given its world premiere this past June at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival. This makes it one of those rare instances of new music enjoying performance by more than one ensemble. This music also had a dark side of lamentation, although it was not quite as stark as “Forever Reaching.” Friction did well to separate the two pieces with the far more upbeat “Friction,” written for them by Roger Briggs, which provided an excellent platform for displaying their abilities as a group to work with complex and energetic rhythmic patterns.

The real rhythmic tour de force, however, was a repeat performance of Brian Baumbusch’s Three Elements, which they had performed earlier this month to mark the beginning of their tenure as Artists-in-Residence in the Old First Concerts series. Baumbusch’s score requires that the performers listen to click tracks, and each performer listens to a different track. This makes for some of the most disorienting rhythms encountered since Conlon Nancarrow tried to punch a piano roll for a rhythmic canon based on the ratio of two to the square root of two. Once again Friction gave a solid account of all of the demands Baumbusch had imposed on them. Also, in the more casual C4NM setting, there was a bit more exchange of humor with the audience as Rogers discussed the implications of the second movement having been named after Lithium.

The final work on the program had also been performed at Old First. This was Garth Knox’ three-movement suite Satellites. This was written for the Kronos Quartet, commissioned under their 50 for the Future project. This will culminate in 50 new works composed, respectively, by 25 women and 25 men. Knox’ contribution was one of the earliest. It was particularly distinguished by the use of non-standard techniques for producing sound. This included playing the instrument without the bow and playing the bow without the instrument. The affair was as compelling visually as it was aurally and concluded the program in high spirits.

Those spirits were further elevated by an encore. The selection was the final movement of Ravel’s string quartet. This quartet has been part of the Friction repertoire since its first year, and they had selected it to begin their Old First recital. Nevertheless, the music is as fresh as it ever was when the group was first presenting itself to audiences; and it was delightful to be reminded that they are still keeping it in circulation.

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