Cikada String Quartet: In due tempi (ECM New Series 1799)

 

Cikada String Quartet
In due tempi

The Cikada String Quartet
Henrik Hannisdal violin
Odd Hannisdal violin
Marek Konstantynowicz viola
Morten Hannisdal violoncello
Recorded August 2001 at Sofienberg Church, Oslo

“My music is as I am.”
–Kaija Saariaho

On April 10 of this year, I had the pleasure of meeting Kaija Saariaho after a lecture given at Mount Holyoke College. Her talk covered a range of topics, including her reclaiming of “compositrice” as a self-referential term; the conceptual tendrils that had coalesced into her third opera, Émilie; and the ever-present role of electronics in her music. She also waxed nostalgic about her many influences. Of these, her deep admiration for Witold Lutosławski stands paramount. The Polish composer once told her, “I am the first audience. I need to step back and see if I would accept the music as a listener.” These sentiments have since charged her music with a chameleonic energy, an energy that stems directly from Saariaho’s beloved dreams. Nymphéa (1987), for string quartet and live electronics, is like a breath of spectral wind in the trees. It is a fitting introduction of her work to the ECM catalogue, and one can only hope the conversation will continue. Where Saariaho stands out among contemporary composers is her ability to maintain a dense auditory palette without ever lapsing into distinctly melodic territory. The note becomes movement, a smile, an ankle in the shadows of the trees, a glimpse of a flowing dress upon the water. Together, they become a handful of medicinal tears, cast like seeds onto a lake’s fertile surface. Each gesture of the quartet is magnified in a fiery reverb, as the musicians are bid to whisper verses by Arseny Tarkovsky (father of director Andrei). Shades of Crumb’s Black Angels and André Boucourechliev’s Archipel II comingle in a magical incantation. And, like a whisper, the resulting sounds lay just beyond our reach. At points it flirts with cacophony, a composition in fast forward. A violin cracks its adolescent voice, cradled by echoes of former ghosts, and inaugurates a lilting series of responses, ending at the edge of our conscious field of vision.

After such a mind-altering experience, John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts (1949/50) wafts like a fragrance, familiar but forgotten. Its four seasonal movements consist of glassy block chords (what Cage called “gamuts”) in lateral formation, each casting a distinct shadow across the whole. Strings are played with minimal bow pressure, flowing with rapt neutrality until the last movement sheds its spring clothing. This makes for a fitting segue into Bruno Maderna’s more serial Quartetto per archi in due tempi (1955). Though one might not know it from this quartet (it is dedicated to Luciano Berio), Maderna much admired Cage and took it upon himself to pen one of the first analytical studies of his music. Here, slow and careful development leads to an increasingly fractured and nervous tale, rupturing into a more forcefully plucked affair before settling back into its quieter beginnings.

In due tempi is an album of transitory spaces, worth the price of admission for Nymphéa alone, after which the others seem to pale in comparison, yet which still provide more than enough intrigue for the open-eared listener. And while my bias obviously leans toward Saariaho, the album is, on the whole, a fascinating one. The Cikada Quartet, who made their label debut on Arild Andersen’s stellar Hyperborean, enact a clear, honed sound that works wonders with the chosen material. An overlooked New Series album, this deserves our full attention.

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