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lamb string quartets 0018010KAI
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Catherine Lamb (b 1982)
Aggregate Forms
String Quartet (two blooms) (2009)
Divisio Spiralis for string quartet (2019)
JACK Quartet
rec. 2021, Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, USA
KAIROS 0018010KAI [2 CDs: 145]

On page two of the Kairos booklet, there is a handwritten sequence of the first ten prime numbers, placed beneath a horizontal line and the superscription ‘prime gradation’ alongside an image of the composer in the middle of an arrangement of shadowy cells and vertices. This brought to mind, my mother's lifelong obsession with prime numbers. On deeper investigation of the booklet (which exudes a palpable, if unconventional beauty in itself) one delights in finding more of these elegant arithmetical sequences, motifs, graphs and shapes, alongside a surprisingly approachable essay about Catherine Lamb’s music by Ryan Dohoney and some quirky and revealing statements from the composer herself. In one of these she discusses “…a kind of synaesthesia with numbers …[involving] forms, shapes and structures” which she believes has consumed her since childhood. She continues thus: “When I first began to count, I imagined a long thread extending upwards and when looking up, at some point I began to see a curve forming in the line until eventually the line transformed into an infinite spiral, with my foot planted at the number 1”. She goes on to refer to established theories which describe the overtone series in complex mathematical terms which go way above my head alas, but which inspired her to derive formulae based on the sequence of prime numbers to help her determine what she describes as the ‘tonal palette’ of Divisio Spiralis, her second string quartet. I have to say I was rather daunted by the prospect of reviewing a quartet of this length – having struggled in the past to maintain concentration throughout chamber epics by Morton Feldman and Alastair Hinton – but I needn’t have worried; Lamb’s music is generally (but not exclusively) slow of pace, logical in construction, radiant in tone, organic and inevitable in its growth, and proved (to my ears at least) captivating and mesmerising in its effect. Having said that, I cannot imagine any old string quartet could bring it off; Lamb is blessed indeed to have the remarkable JACK Quartet in her corner for the purposes of this recording. The intensity and conviction of their playing is palpable from the first note – that these qualities are maintained for such an extraordinary duration in music of such rarefied subtlety and sparseness seems a feat of Herculean proportions. Whilst my admiration for Morton Feldman’s long pieces provides some clues as to how to approach music of such prolixity, Lamb is more focused on the components and qualities of the single note, and of the timbral possibilities of the four instruments played by the consistently impressive JACK Quartet. Their precision in both of these audacious works is superbly captured by a demonstration recording which makes an even stronger impact on good headphones in the dark late at night. But sat up, rather than supine. Lemb’s music demands still concentration on the part of the listener, not least for the first fifteen or so minutes of these two quartets. I found in each that one kind of relaxes into her sonic language thereafter. If you’re in the zone, for me Lamb’s quartets are most potent in the middle of the day, preferably undistracted by work, people or bad news – a sleeping, adjacent cat is allowed. Early in the morning it this music will challenge rather than dull one’s alertness. As pre-sleep night music you can forget it; whilst Lamb’s soundworld suits the dark it cannot alas in itself circumvent that annoying human reflex to nod off at the end of the day.

The essays, interviews and commentaries in the booklet are all literate and well-intentioned, yet whilst I can recognise and sometimes comprehend words and terms and names like Barthes and overtone and Tenney and glissando and micro- and macro-structure and crystal and phenomenology, the density of concentration required for me to join all the dots these days seems excessive; younger or more technically informed souls will doubtless revel in the attempt. In any case I’m far more interested in the sounds than their rationale. And whilst I truly found Catherine Lamb’s two massive string quartets to be absolutely worthy of my cognitive investment, I feel equally sure that some readers will find them each to be a bridge too far. To my mind neither work benefits from reams of description, analysis or justification.

The first, two blooms is a single movement meditation of just over three quarters of an hour’s duration. It begins with a sombre sustained string tone which is raw and constant over a span of six or more minutes; this purifies, thickens, refines and mellows; it reaches a point of shrillness, then exhales and somehow stabilises. These timbral shifts are remarkably slow and subtle – I can only describe a subjective response – others will select different adjectives. The flow is interrupted ever so briefly by short rests after every three or four minutes. In due course the titular two blooms ever so gradually began to diverge and splinter; they split and reunite, intermittently they briefly droop and stiffen. The shifting colours, textures and tesseilations produced throughout by the outstanding JACK Quartet elicit unexpectedly mesmerising vibrations and pulses. This listener eventually found himself bewitched by the results; I cheerfully admit that initially I had to really force myself to commit to the cause, yet before long the sweetly piquant intensity of Lamb’s piece absolutely won me over.

There’s more variety in the pace and tonal arrangement in Divisio Spiralis, a rather sprawling thirteen movement construction which expands to just shy of one hundred minutes. The divisions between movements are extremely short – they are ultimately slight expansions of the rests in two blooms. Whilst there’s more going on across this huge span it’s not so much more that you feel you can just relax and let the sound do the work. The juxtapositions of pure tone and sharp dissonance, of rapt stillness and subtle dynamism and most obviously to the na´ve listener of intervals which imperceptibly oscillate between microscopically tiny and unimaginably vast within the same beat, a phenomenon which seems to again create an auditory illusion of pulse. The concentration and commitment required on the part of the listener possibly matches that needed by the players, although the JACK Quartet’s endeavours at no point seem to sag. Perhaps inevitably, at first listen I found it markedly less satisfying (and somewhat more diffuse) than two blooms although I feel certain that this perception will disappear when I try again at some point. There is far more to this music than anyone can possibly absorb during a single experience. It definitely seems worth the effort too.

Kairos’ sound is immaculate - surgically precise but never in one’s face. The package is beautifully designed, the booklet replete with photographs of the composer in an array of mathematically intriguing contexts and surroundings, and aesthetically pleasing graphs, tables, sequences and spirals. I understand none of it. But I found Lamb’s music to present a far from uncongenial test for my powers of concentration, a challenge which will undoubtedly reward the patient, open-minded listener. Purely by accident a few days ago I pressed my remote’s fast-forward function directly after listening to two blooms for the third time. The subsequent aural experience provided a revealing insight into Lamb’s application of tempo and form, but for the listener to really appreciate the refinement at the core of this strange music the standard ‘Play’ option is preferable,

Let me leave the penultimate word to the JACK Quartet’s first violin Christopher Otto, who sums up this project in the booklet most eloquently: “The recording is not an endpoint, but part of a broadening process, a continuous evolution of abstract relationships becoming concrete, erasing artificial divisions between melody, harmony and timbre, between body, mind and spirit”

I think the precision of Otto’s summary is worthy of the sounds it addresses. Aggregate Forms constitutes an adventurous release even by the standards of the Kairos label, but it is certainly one of uncommon fascination.

Richard Hanlon

Published: October 10, 2022

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