String Quartet No. 4 'Traveling Symphony'

18 minutes

Commissioned by the Caramoor Festival for the Argus Quartet.
World premiere: July 14, 2017 Caramoor Festival, New York

Program notes: 

String Quartet No. 4 Traveling Symphony, commissioned by Caramoor for the Argus Quartet, is in no small part a response to this quartet’s sense of adventure and expressive emotional range.  When the project came in I had been reading several recent end-of-civilization novels including The Dog Stars by Peter Heller and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  These two books, while quite dark, are full of the resilience of the human spirit.  (In both, the agent of catastrophe is a flu pandemic rather than nuclear Armageddon, making an eventual rebirth of civilization seem possible, however difficult.) 

The quartet unfolds in a single movement of about eighteen minutes, loosely based on plot lines in both novels.  There is a Traveling Symphony in Station Eleven, an assortment of musicians and actors who travel the countryside for decades playing symphonies, jazz and orchestral arrangements of popular music alongside performances of Shakespeare plays, King Lear prominent among them.  This is, of course, highly reminiscent of medieval troupes traveling the countryside in plague-ridden times.  The instrumentation of the Symphony is ad hoc and varied – ‘third cello, second horn, sixth guitar...’ 

In this theatrical and narrative piece, I ask the quartet to do some singing as well as ‘stage whispering’ fragments from King Lear and bits of text derived from Station Eleven.  I imagine the musicians embodying the Traveling Symphony – orchestra, theatre company, itinerant news service, keepers of the flame of culture.  Starting near the beginning of the quartet you will at times hear text fragments interpreted by the instruments closely mimicking the cadence of spoken phrases.

The form of the piece, a collection of scenes, follows this arc:

(i) still, mournful music; (ii) skittery, nervous traveling music; (iii) still, mournful music with intense melodic fragments; (iv) the Traveling Symphony’s overture to a Shakespeare play (quasi-Elizabethan music accompanied by guitars); (v) ‘telling the news’ of catastrophe, led by the cello; (vi) skittery traveling music returns; (vii) a tombeau for the people of the world; (viii) the Traveling Symphony overture returns; (ix) lighting the power grid.

String Quartet No. 4 Traveling Symphony was commissioned by the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, on behalf of the Argus Quartet, for A String Quartet Library for the 21st Century. World Premiere: July 14, 2017 at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts.

                                                                                                            - Donald Crockett