Del Sol String Quartet: Sculthorpe: The Complete String Quartets with Didjeridu
Sono Luminus

Los Angeles Percussion Quartet: The Year Before Yesterday
Sono Luminus

Probably like many a listener, my first exposure to Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014) came about via the Kronos Quartet's self-titled album, which appeared on Nonesuch in 1985 and includes the Australian composer's eighth string quartet. In the years that followed, I became more deeply acquainted with his broad and immensely rich soundworld. But what makes this double-CD set by the San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet (violinists Kate Stenberg and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Kathryn Bates Williams) a must-have for Sculthorpe devotees is that it includes the Australian composer's entire works for string quartet and didjeridu.

In another context, the instrument's low-pitched, guttural sound might be exploited for purely novelty purposes; on this Sculthorpe collection, the didjeridu functions as a vital part of the sound design, resulting in a recording of thoroughly distinctive character. There's an appealingly earthy quality to the didjeridu that makes for a fascinating aural counterpoint to the classical timbres of the traditional string quartet, and one doesn't doubt for a moment the sincerity with which Lee describes the group's recording with didjeridu virtuoso Stephen Kent as one of the most “amazing artistic collaborations that Del Sol has had in our twenty-two years of music making.”

The release, which presents eighty-two minutes of music, features four quartets, the first a single-movement work of twelve-minute duration and the others multi-part compositions of wide-ranging moods. Programmatically speaking, much of the writing is informed by Sculthorpe's heartfelt concerns for Australia in terms of its landscape, politics, and Indigenous peoples.

The opening twelfth quartet “From Ubirr,” whose title derives from a group of rocky outcrops located in Australia's coastal north region, opens with Kent generating a series of drone-like expressions that, especially when his vocal sounds form an audible part of the sound, at times resemble the wheeze of a harmonica or jaw harp. After the strings join in, the music, its acerbic tone reflecting Sculthorpe's anger over the degradation of the land and the challenges facing its traditional Indigenous owners, grows ever-urgent as it oscillates between moods of anguish, supplication, and mournfulness. The four-part fourteenth quartet, “Quamby,” follows, with this time the strings opening the piece with romantic violin melodies accompanied by ostinatos and the growl of the didjeridu emerging towards the end. The sombre tone of the strings-only second movement (“In the Valley”) is alleviated by the lyrical calm of the third (“On High Hills”), which is further distinguished by “seagull sounds” produced by bowed harmonic glissandi and a main melody that has adolescent ties for Sculthorpe to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” “At Quamby Bluff” concludes the quartet with bold contrasts, the music alternating between meditative and passionate episodes until the didjeridu closes the movement with a dramatic drone.

The sixteenth quartet wears its heart on its sleeves, as indicated by its movement titles. Inspired by Nothing to Zero, a book consisting of extracts from letters written by asylum seekers in Australian immigration detention centers, the quartet makes an appeal on Sculthorpe's behalf for justice to refugees that's similar to the appeal for justice to Indigenous Australians embodied by the fourteenth. Structured in a five-part form (A-B-A-B-A), the sixteenth begins with plangent expressions by the strings (“Loneliness”), the didjeridu first present as an underlying drone and ultimately as a huffing'n'puffing lead. Reflecting the composer's responses to “letters of considerable anguish,” dissonance arises during the second (“Anger”) and fourth (“Trauma”) parts, their intensity offset by the mournful third (“Yearning”) and the hopeful fifth (“Freedom”). The eighteenth quartet, completed in 2010 on the composer's eighty-first birthday, was intended as “a heartfelt expression of [Sculthorpe's] concern about climate change, about the future of our fragile planet,” though characteristically the composer subsequently decided to use Australia as a metaphor for the planet. Based on a mid-20th century Indigenous song tune, the aptly titled “A Land Singing” exudes a quietly uplifting quality, in contrast to “A Dying Land” and “A Lost Land” wherein moods of melancholy and desolation dominate. Like the sixteenth, the eighteenth ends on a cautiously optimistic note, with the plaintive feel of “Postlude” originating from the 18th-century hymn tune “O, God, our help in ages past” on which it's based.

Another recent Sono Luminus release arrives courtesy of the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet (Nick Terry, Matt Cook, Justin DeHart, and Cory Hills), whose The Year Before Yesterday follows up the group's Grammy-nominated Rupa-Khandha. In contrast to the Del Sol set, the LAPQ outing features work by multiple composers, specifically Shaun Naidoo, Eric Griswold, Nick Deyoe, Isaac Schankler, Joseph Pereira, and William Kraft. In operation since 2009, the LAPQ supplements the usual arsenal of traditional percussion instruments on The Year Before Yesterday with found and created objects as well as triggered electronics. While certain pieces stand out, the recording is best experienced as a whole that encompasses a large array of tonal colours, moods, and compositional styles.

William Kraft (b. 1923) conceived of his Fore! as a chamber piece as opposed to one for percussion due to its emphasis on keyboard-styled instruments such as vibraphone, marimba, and chimes. Chordally drawing upon jazz pianists Bill Evans and Bud Powell as well as Ravel, the music unfolds in three sections, with the first spotlighting the drum-related ruminations of a solo percussionist and the second, “Farnsworth Park at Twilight,” taking inspiration (and quoting) from Ives's “Central Park in the Dark.” The Year Before Yesterday by Shaun Naidoo (1962-2012) follows, the significance of the mallets-heavy, nine-minute exploration bolstered by the fact that it was one of the last works the South African-born and US-based composer completed.

Arranged for two vibraphones and two marimbas, Joseph Pereira's Mallet Quartet presents an exploration into the full spectrum of the instruments' sound possibilities in focusing on their resonances, attacks, and overtones, while Isaac Schankler's Blindnesses uses pitch-bending and bowing to transform the vibraphones into woozy creatures shadowed by glitchy electronic effects. Taking its cue from the line “We can only learn to tune the relationship we have with our surroundings,” Lullaby 5 by Nicholas Deyoe, a number of whose works have appeared on Populist Records, structures his constantly mutating piece so that each player's setup is a modified imitation of the other three, which ensures that a homogenous ensemble sound results yet one marked by subtle individual differences.

The album's most engaging piece is Erik Griswold's Give Us This Day, which wends down multiple pathways, rhythmic and otherwise, over the course of its five parts. Syncopated drum patterns catch one's ear during the insistently rhythmic “Rise Up,” after which “Breathe” cools the pace with shimmering tones whose rise is much like that of exhaled breath. In the final three sections, pounding rhythm patterns and snare rolls bring the volume level up in “Cold Steel,” alien sound textures enhance the ethereal character of “Alone,” and “Punch the Sky” closes the work with the funky interactions of toy melodicas, cymbals, and drums.

A final word on the products themselves is in order, as Sono Luminus clearly spares no expense in the presentation of its products. Not only do these classical recordings come with booklets containing extensive liner notes, the musical content on both is presented in two formats: as Pure Audio Blu-ray and as a standard resolution CD.

November 2014