Elliott Miles McKINLEY (b. 1969)
String Quartet No. 4 [22:14]
String Quartet No. 5 [15:12]
String Quartet No. 6 [26:13]
Martinů Quartet - Petr Macecek (violin), Lubomir Havlak (violin), Jan Jisa (viola), Jitka Vlasánková (cello)
rec. November 2001, December 2005, February 2010, Studio Martinek, Prague, Czech Republic. DDD

Elliott Miles McKinley is a prolific American composer influenced by jazz and jazz idioms. Currently Chair of the Department of Music and Assistant Professor of Music and Informatics at Indiana University East - with whose support this well-presented CD was produced - he has worked with a large number of ensembles and orchestras. These include the Martinů Quartet, who both commissioned these string quartets, and gave their first performances.

The music on this CD - which also has the booklet, all three scores and slim supplementary material available electronically in a dedicated Flash PDF reader - is unadventurous when compared with other ground being broken and covered in the medium. 'Swing', smooth lines and gently syncopated rhythms are more important to the composer. On the other hand, McKinley does introduce more variety than at first might be apparent … quartets 4 and 6 each have four movements, but number five is in three parts - with six, two and four short movements (only one is longer than three minutes) each. These allow the tempi to vary and some interest to be kept up; the marking 'With a Touch of Swagger' is still typical, although there are several gentle and sensitive slow movements.

Significantly, though, McKinley is highly competent at the many ways in which material can be extended from an initial, simple, melodic and harmonic cell or gesture. Then there is some exciting use of rhythm - notably in the sixth quartet. Some of the melodies are marginally memorable; but tend to sound the same and rely on similar techniques for impact.

One often has the feeling, too, that some of the core techniques of string quartet writing are set aside in the interests of overlong passages of jazzy unison writing. Subtleties of harmony, alternating articulations - though the end of the fifth uses pizzicato widely - and truly subtle development of themes and texture which exploit the differences and similarities between the three instruments' textures and registers seem to be of less interest to McKinley than pulse, drive and rubato. Nor are many of the ideas or ways in which McKinley has arranged his material innovative or really very ear-catching.

The playing of the Martinů Quartet is convincing, committed and aims fully to express and endorse McKinley's highly accessible idiom. The acoustic is dry but conducive to presenting in the best light what, frankly, is somewhat mediocre and unexceptional music. Imagine how Milhaud, Copland and Bernstein might have collaborated on a string quartet with Piazzolla playing in the background, each composer fending off discarded pages from Paul Bunyan. Add to this that each might secretly have sneaked a look while the others weren't paying attention. No one dares depart from the formula which the others apparently felt safest with. With all this in mind you'll appreciate what this collection has to offer.

Mark Sealey

Competent playing of music that will appeal to those who like slightly unsettled wine from the eye-level shelves of the supermarket, and well watered down.