Scrapyard Exotica
Mason BATES (b. 1977)
Bagatelles for String Quartet and Electronica (2011) [16:10]
Ken UENO (b. 1970)
Peradam (2011) [20:52]
Mohammed FAIROUZ (b. 1985)
The Named Angels (2012) [27:02]
Del Sol String Quartet
rec. Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia, USA (Ueno, Fairouz) 23-26 April, 2014 and Osher Salon, San Francisco Conservatory of Music (Bates) 20-21 December, 2012
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92193 [64:04]

One of my grammar school maths teachers was an enthusiastic classical record collector who soon spotted how interested I was too. His advice was to save up and change my little record player for something that would play stereo. How simple things were then! Converting from mono to stereo was relatively expensive, as was, later, converting from LPs to CDs, but that was the only difficulty. If you buy this latest issue from the San Francisco-based Del Sol String Quartet today, you get not only a standard CD, but also a Blu-ray disc. I can’t play this, which is doubly unfortunate, because if I could I’d also be able, via my computer, to download further copies of each of the three works in the programme.

And what a programme! Mason Bates, we read in the booklet, is “the second most-performed living composer”. As a rule, if it’s written I prefer to believe it, but a little internet investigation reveals that Bates is indeed in second position, after John Adams and in front of Jennifer Higdon, in an analytical survey of works performed by twenty-two American symphony orchestras. It’s a creditable score, to be sure, but not quite what the booklet claims. About Bagatelles, “for string quartet and electronica”, we read that the players were invited to spend a day in a studio producing different sounds from their instruments which the composer would then use as the basis for the electronic track. These sounds included “hitting, caressing, honking and plunking”. I’m assuming that, in performance, the quartet plays live alongside this recorded track.

This set-up is something the work has in common with Steve Reich’s Different Trains, and indeed its sound world is not that far removed from the earlier work. The first of the four short movements, entitled “Rough Math” is highly and constantly rhythmic, its constant background beat overlaid with irregular figuration from the live instruments. The style owes a lot to several different genres of modern popular music. The second movement, “Scrapyard Exotica”, which gives the disc its overall title, employs pizzicato effects, but becomes more lyrical as it progresses. The musical language is resolutely tonal. Whilst the charming third movement, “Mating Dance”, uses the quartet more or less straight, without electronic interference, the fourth movement, “Viscera”, opens with the players “hitting” noises transformed into something that fairly closely resembles a drum kit.

Ken Ueno’s Peradam is quite a different proposition. The composer writes that “prominently featured throughout [his] piece” are “equal tempered notes, quarter-tones, justly intoned notes, and microtonal harmonies derived from formant analysis of sung vowels.” The work’s single span encompasses many different sections and moods, employing a range of advanced playing techniques. Each member of the quartet is required to sing, which they do most proficiently. One of them, the viola player, also throat sings. He writes “I am simultaneously playing so high up on the instrument that I lose the support of my left hand and have to hold the weight of the viola with my head and shoulders only.” I assume that the loud, low, guttural sung notes are what is being referred to here, but unfortunately, though throat singing is mentioned at several points in the accompanying text, exactly what is involved is never explained. The work is far from featureless, but any idea of pulse is absent, even in faster passages, and sections tend to dissolve from one to the other without clearly defined limits. Several hearings are required before you begin to know where you are. The work as a whole creates the feeling of a wandering quest, and this puts me in mind of examples of early electronic music that I listened to, rather reluctantly, it must be said, as a student. Ueno’s piece, however, is wholly acoustic. Listeners with wide experience of the multitude of contemporary musical styles will not be shocked by the work. Others will have to modify their expectations and open their ears to what will certainly be a novel experience.

The musical language employed by Mohammed Fairouz in The Named Angels is at once more traditional. Whilst traces of American minimalism are undoubtedly present, it is the music of the middle east that is most consciously evoked in this work, and this comes out both in the melodic and harmonic writing, with the use of what even non-specialist listeners will recognise as oriental scales and modes, as well as in the rhythmic caste of the music. Each of the four movements seeks to portray a different angel drawn from those “named and recognised in the Islamic, Christian and Jewish traditions”. Thus, in the opening movement, thunder and mercy are evoked in respect of Michael, whereas the second movement treats Azrael, the Angel of Death. This long, slow movement begins in sombre mood, but in music of extreme, but not cloying, sweetness, the angel’s capacity to lead beyond and to transcend death is skilfully and rather movingly portrayed. Gabriel and Israfel are the subjects of the two remaining movements, the finale opening with a vivid and striking evocation of Israfel’s trumpet blast followed by what the composer aptly describes as “a fully-fledged apocalyptic dance”. This is, I think, the most immediately approachable work of the three. The instrumental writing is challenging but asks for little in the way of special techniques.

The Del Sol String Quartet specialises in contemporary music. Writing about the Ueno piece, the violist quoted above also has this to say: “Learning this piece has been an incredible physical journey for the quartet”. This demonstrates something of the level of the players’ commitment to this repertoire, and it is borne out by the performances, each of which is of an extraordinarily high standard. The recording, which I listened to in normal stereo, is very fine. The booklet is well produced and marred only by the occasional opacities almost inevitable when composers are allowed to write about their own music.

William Hedley


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