Cindy COX (b.1961)
Elegy for solo violin (1990) [5.29]
Columba aspexit (1995) [23.35]
Patagón (2011) [26.46]
Zakarians Grafilo (violin) Alexander String Quartet
rec. Hertz Hall, Berkeley, California, 19-20 December 2012 and 3-4 June 2013 FOGHORN CLASSICS CD2015 [56.00]
“Radical, traditional, original, archetypal, Cindy Cox derives her post-tonal musical language from acoustics, innovations in technology, harmonic resonance, and poetic allusion. Naturally unfolding through linked strands of association, timbral fluctuation, and cyclic temporal processes, her compositions synthesize old and new musical designs.” Actually her compositions are much better than this wordily obscure opening of her biographical note in the booklet would lead the listener to expect. The opening Elegy for the difficult and sometimes intractable medium of solo violin does no violence to the nature of the instrument, and indeed begins with a sense of rapture which charms the ear before leading on to a more emotional climax – the work was written in memory of the composer’s friend Eric Heckard, “a wonderfully talented composer who died in 1989 at the young age of twenty-six.”
Columba aspexit is likewise an elegy, this time for the composer’s daughter who died at birth. It takes as its foundation a chant by Hildegard of Bingen (not heard in its original form until the very end of the piece), developing it initially in a densely argued polyphonic style and featuring a series of canonic elaborations of the material. Around two-thirds of the way through the four linked movements the music becomes more explicitly attuned to the medium of the string quartet, with pizzicato passages even leading to Bartókian ‘snap’ plucking of the strings, but again the idiom is ideally suited to the instruments and is handled gratefully and gracefully by the Alexander players. The very close observation of the instruments does however leave a very immediate impression, and the ear would have welcomed a greater sense of space around them; there is little suggestion of a hall acoustic here (especially in the forceful opening of track 5). And the track listing is misleading; it suggests that the four movements are linked on one track, whereas in fact they are separated into four. Listeners should therefore be aware that Patagón begins on track 6, not track 3 as stated both on the back of the booklet and on the CD cover.
Patagón is described by the composer as a series of portraits of aspects of the Patagonian landscape, and the movements bear descriptive titles such as Southern right whales and Magellanic penguins. The composer in her note draws attention to her use of various ‘avant garde’ string techniques, but these do not force themselves upon the listener as elements in their own right, seeming instead to be purely illustrative. The sound recording here seems to be somewhat less forward, although again there is little sense of air around the players; those listeners who still have graphic equalisers in their set-ups might find more atmosphere if they switch the echo on. Nonetheless the very closeness of the recording enables one to appreciate the precise and well-tuned playing of the Alexander Quartet even during the deliberately scratchy opening to the fourth movement The sleeping cold earth (track 9). There is quite a sense of fun, even, in the final The southern cross and the revolving sky (track 10), with ‘avant garde’ techniques employed to picaresque effect.
The biography in the booklet quotes from an earlier review by Robert Carl in Fanfare where he refers to Cox’s music as demonstrating “an extremely refined and imaginative sense of instrumental colour.” However the citation refrains from continuing the text of that review, where the writer complained of “music … dense with notes, even when moving at a moderate tempo … while its obvious richness of ideas is at times exhilarating, one can also get a sense of overload.” He was referring here to a 2002 recording, also by the Alexander Quartet, of the quartet Columba aspexit; and I can appreciate his point if the recording then was anything like as claustrophobic as it is here. At the same time the closely argued textures have a sense of internal logic which is compelling in its own right, and in Patagón written some fifteen years later the writing for the quartet medium remains idiomatic and enjoyable. While the earlier release coupled Columba aspexit with a number of pieces for differently constituted chamber ensembles, this new version comes as part of an overall survey of Cox’s music for strings which is valuable in its own right. Looking at that 2002 CRI disc, one might observe that one or two of the other tracks contained there could have been profitably employed to bolster the rather meagre playing time on this new issue.