Fry Street Quartet: The Crossroads Project
Navona Records

Rather than being purely formal exercises without programmatic content, these two works by Laura Kaminsky and Libby Larsen were commissioned by the Fry Street Quartet for The Crossroads Project, a multi-disciplinary endeavour involving music, visuals, and writing that seeks to draw attention to issues of global sustainability and climate change. In concert with educator and physicist Dr. Robert Davies, the quartet's members, violinists Robert Waters and Rebecca McFaul, violist Bradley Ottesen, and cellist Anne Francis Bayless, hope to enact social and political change through their project's efforts, and to serve that end asked Kaminsky and Larsen to compose works in accordance with the sustainability theme and inspire listeners to contemplate the various pathways we might follow.

The composers in question, both of them award-winners with decades of work behind them (Larsen's catalogue, for example, boasts no less than 400-plus works), prove to be a complementary pair for the recording and naturally suited to the project. Rising Tide is consistent with other Kaminsky works in exploring humanity's strong connection to the natural world, with in this case the four movements centering respectively on water, biosphere, food, and human society. Larsen's five-movement Emergence, on the other hand, concentrates on the first of those systems by treating the parts of the water cycle (precipitation, run-off, evaporation and transpiration, condensation) as a metaphor for change and transformation.

The programmatic dimension of Kaminsky's material is present in the opening movement, “H2O (The Source of Life),” which grew out of her imagining an arid ancient landscape where a tiny stream grows into a rushing river. Through the juxtaposition of agitation and serenity, the movement suggests dynamic awakening and the eruptive force of natural phenomena. String plucks and bowed flourishes signify the elemental pulsing of energy during “Bios”; the rapid tempo of “Forage,” by comparison, conjures the image of creatures scurrying about fields and forests in search of food, while “Societas” is at times meditative, alluding perhaps to Kaminsky's hope that the listener will seriously reflect on the work's larger themes as it nears its end.

While the movements in Larsen's Emergence vary in keeping with their titles (“Radiant” versus “Rage,” for example), they're all marked by bright tonal colour, spirited rhythmic sequences, and lyrical expressiveness. A panoramic range of musical effects and emotions is encompassed by the work, despite the fact that each part makes its case with dispatch, only one pushing past the five-minute mark, and not a moment is wasted. Of the five, the most affecting are “Resolve” and “Reverence” for the way they thread plaintive folk-styled content into their design.

Of course, as is always the case with music, the listener's free to ignore the programmatic content in play and experience the two works on purely musical terms, and broached in that manner they hold up perfectly well; there's no question that both would be credible additions to any string quartet's concert presentation. But there's also no denying that the listening experience is enriched dramatically once one becomes informed about the composers' intentions and familiar with The Crossroads Project in general.

October 2016