Coping with crisisThere have been many creative responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in the music world – from employing (distanced) theater with performance, to live interviews with the performers after a streamed performance, to hybrid productions of streaming with (small) live audiences. Friday night’s performance by the Ciompi Quartet, called “The Poortfolio Project” and part the Duke University Department of Music‘s Best of Biddle virtual series, explored yet another avenue. In the summer of 2020, the quartet commissioned four Duke graduate students to write “short works that could be practiced and recorded remotely by each member of the quartet.”

The virtual audience was welcomed by Caroline Stinson, who informed us that this project will be continued in summer 2021. (We found out from the program notes that the winners have already been chosen: Brooks Frederickson, Dayton Kinney, and Huijuan Ling.) If the result is as interesting and contrasting as these four works, the ongoing effort will be well worth it. Thanks to the composers, who generously provided their scores along with the Ciompi’s recording!

“Rotation Study” by James Budinich is a 4½-minute work which, according to the composer, was inspired by Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (1932-2016). Budinich created “a proportional notation system where each system lasts 15 seconds – the four quartet members form a kind of kaleidoscopic pattern [with] each system, slowly shifting their notes in each line,” which lends an “indeterminant nature.”

Each member of the quartet employed a number of “extended” techniques, described in the score, and, using a stopwatch to stay together, the members had the freedom to decided exactly when to play the notes written within five-second units. The result was a series of isolated units, each separated by a short pause.

Amazingly, there were some tonal references amid the pizzicatos, “ricocheting” bowings, drones and tremolos. The overall effect was both soothing and calming along with some nervousness. The composer stated that the commission allowed him to try some new ideas: “I wouldn’t have tried this notation system if I hadn’t had the pandemic to deal with….”

Ryan Harrison’s ”Disconnected,” according to the program notes, “alternates sections with traditional time signatures and sections without time signatures that are aleatoric (music that leaves one or more elements to chance).”

“The title… can be applied to several different lenses and can have more than one meaning,” Harrison said. “I composed the piece in distinct sections because I didn’t want a continuous stream of music that would be hard for musicians in different spaces to keep together…. The performer gets to choose the order and tempo of the patterns they play, so they aren’t required or expected to play together. The desired effect is that of a whirling cacophony, reminding one of a wind chime or a bird chorus. There’s a sense of predictability and unpredictability at the same time.”

Before the music began, verses from Psalm 102 were presented on the screen: this passage is about isolation and suffering. The performance of the music was accompanied by lovely pictures of birds, taken by Harrison, a wildlife photographer; and a copy of the score was available online.

The work begins with three of the players presenting different, melancholic solo lines in turn. This introduction ends with all four playing a chord. The “A” section utilizes motives from the intro and the cool melancholy remains. What follows (“B”) is a more animated “Cacophonous: Free Tempo” section of about a minute. Here is where the aleatoric aspect comes, and the resultant sound could be compared to early morning when birds awake and begin chirping, each with its own song.

The texture of the A and B sections returns, bringing the 6-minute composition to a close. Harrison, like Budinich, expressed thanks for the commission: “Without this commission and the COVID pandemic, I might not have experimented with an aleatoric approach. That was a good challenge – trying to make something interesting out of a difficult situation.”

Before James Chu‘s “Mk” began, a quote was presented: “‘Mk’ is about headspace we often neglect…. It is an escape of sorts, a call to be attuned to our surroundings.” In this composition Chu combines both music for the quartet with prerecorded sounds of a tea ceremony: “the tea whisk, the steam of the kettle, the opening and closing of tea containers, and the setting down of tea tools.” Chu’s mother, visual artist Takayo Futamura (whose work is seen in his video), is also a tea-ceremony master.

“Mk,” which “stands for Mark (mk) or edition, … is a studio composition where each musician overdubs their part…. My intent… is to create a space in which the listener can experience a communal sense of warmth through the soundscape of the tea room…. I want to create a work in which listeners can enter into an imagined space.”

Initially a white screen (which one assumes is the “imagined space”) accompanied ambient sounds of the tearoom with a few soothing chords from the quartet. About 2 minutes into the piece, the screen slowly became a “canvas” with 20 blue/green squares of different hues, again with soothing chords, sounding much like an organ. The canvas faded back to the white screen and more tearoom sounds softly conclude the 6+-minute work.

This calming piece, which incorporates both random “real world” sounds with carefully constructed music, was a powerful reminder of what is outside our own lockdown. The canvas, we learn at the conclusion of the piece, is “Painting II; Green,” by Takayo Futamura.

Maximiliano Amici‘s “Mirage” also begins with a quote: “<<Mirage>> is a meditation on solitude and insularity; it explores a purely internal space…. Scattered thoughts lead to a <<vision>> of Fata Morgana (Mirage) in the middle of the piece, then the sonic image disappears, and the music gradually fades into silence.”

The two violins began in a lonely duet, marked by many half-steps before chords from the entire ensemble interrupt. All four instruments took up the exploration of the half step (sometimes accompanied by harmonics) before a nervous, animated section with the cello front and center takes over.

The mood becomes a bit calmer, with the cello still in the spotlight. Eerie harmonic chords are juxtaposed against the half-step motive often presented as a duet between two instruments. The six-minute work concludes with the harmonic chords moving in half-step motion.

Amici: “‘Mirage’ can be heard – on both technical and aesthetic levels, as a reflection of the challenges that we face as we go through the social isolation that COVID-19 pandemic imposes. The music is introverted…. I tried to depict a tired brain that cannot follow its own thinking, while a sort of delirium builds up, dominates the mind for some instants, then fades into silence in the second part of the composition.”

(More information about all the composers and their works can be seen in this article.)

The playing by the Ciompi Quartet, which was never seen the entire evening, was outstanding. One cannot imagine more definitive performances. Ensemble was locked tight, intonation spot-on, and the four musicians artistically explored the depths of these four profound, pandemic “inspired” compositions.

(Edited/updated 4/6&7/21.)