Peter Garland: String Quartets
Cold Blue

Peter Garland's String Quartets presents premiere recordings of two compositions—String Quartet No. 1 (“In Praise of Poor Scholars”), composed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1986; and String Quartet No. 2 (“Crazy Cloud”), begun in May 1994 at Koninji Temple on Sado Island, Japan, and completed in Kreuzberg, Berlin, in the summer of 1994—that show related yet slightly different sides of the composer's personality. That Garland , who studied with Harold Budd and James Tenney and befriended Lou Harrison, Conlon Nancarrow, Paul Bowles, and Dane Rudhyar, focused in a musicological capacity on Native American, Mexican, and Southwestern American musics and 20th-century experimental composers of the Americas is clearly evidenced by the recording's material. Though a plaintive current emerges in the writing, Garland's consonant music also often dances with joyful abandon. A key part of the music's appeal is its earthy quality; anything but remote, Garland 's compositions suggest stronger connections to African, Native American, or Mexican folk music than to the conventional classical tradition. It reminds one more, in other words, of Leaves of Grass than a sacred biblical text, and it's easy too to imagine the music rearranged for a vocal quartet, so natural and breath-like are its melodic lines. Garland's music unfolds with a natural and conversational grace that makes it feel liberated from classical conventions.

The first quartet, “In Praise of Poor Scholars,” which takes inspiration and title from a poem by T'ao Ch'ien, exudes a rapturous quality with clearly-defined melodies that sing elegantly and resonate boldly. Despite the general mood of autumnal melancholy that pervades “Rondeau “nouveau”,” the movement's themes are brightened by jubilant melodic lines, while strings sing rapturously in “To the memory of Dane Rudhyar” and engage in Renaissance-styled polyphony during “Back to the 14th century …” The second quartet, “Crazy Cloud,” ranges stylistically further, encompassing as it does American Indian ceremonial dance music, blues, and Mexican song. “Sado” begins the piece with bold and assertive gestures, with melodic lines passionately surging upwards. The recording reaches a poignant peak in the twilight meditation that follows (“Mori (the blind courtesan and singer who became Ikkyu's lover)”) where somber lines unfurl languidly like an ululating lamentation. After an energized homage to Mexican song and a bittersweet blues elegy, “From the Mountains, Returning to the City” ends the quartet with a brief reprise of the opening movement's ascending figures.

String Quartets exudes a wide-ranging and wide-eyed, even ecstatic character at times, due in no small part to the magnificent rendering of the quartets by the four Apartment House string players. In fact, it would be criminal not to comment on the caliber of the string playing, with violinists Gordon MacKay and Hilary Sturt in particular demanding to be recognized for the passion with which they bring Garland's luscious and lyrical melodies to life.

June 2009