This is my first encounter with the music of the American composer Matthew Quayle. Aside from composing and working to commissions, he's a pianist, chamber musician and currently holds a teaching post at New York University, Abu Dhabi. His compositional output is wide-ranging: in addition to his string quartets, he's written orchestral works, cabaret song cycles and solo piano music. The three string quartets here span eleven years: the first two date from 2005 and 2006, with No. 3 following after a gap of ten years.
Although in four movements, the String Quartet No. 1 started life as a single movement, written at a time of family bereavement. As well as conveying a deep sense of loss, it also takes a backward glance at the composer’s childhood days in Gridley Paige Road, a rural setting in the centre of New York State. Nostalgia and wistfulness pervade the music. Three more movements were added two years later. There’s a sprightly Scherzo, rhythmically buoyant and capricious. A slow movement follows, sombre and doleful. Quayle describes the finale as ‘enigmatic’, and that’s exactly how I found it, yet there’s a sense of optimism and hope at the end. It concludes with some glowing, luminous harmonics. In 2007, the composer made a string orchestra arrangement of the first movement, entitling it ‘Gridley Paige Road’.
A year later Quayle wrote his Second String Quartet, which has the intriguing title ‘Sweet Insanity’. A single movement, it paints a graphic portrait of the composer’s life at the time – stressful, insecure and filled with uncertainty. Its disparate styles – lyricism on one hand, spiky, atonal dissonance on the other - merge into a nine-minute canvas of turmoil and hurly-burly. It’s much more harmonically advanced than its predecessor.
Fast forward ten years and we have the String Quartet No. 3, comprising of thirteen linked short vignettes of everyday life – “a dizzying diet of news clips, You Tube videos, randomized song playlists and soundbites”. So, the work sounds erratic. The opening chords of Bach’s Chaconne make an appearance early on. The tranquil opening of the first movement quickly splinters into a series of life’s snapshots, no doubt a caustic comment on the irritating soundbites that inflict themselves on us today, pandering to an audience with a perceived brief attention span.
The Avalon String Quartet, who’ve had close ties with these string quartets since their genesis, give committed performances of these imaginatively constructed quartets; they obviously believe in the music and the composer couldn’t have wished for better advocates. Furthermore, they've been well-recorded. Matthew Quayle’s own liner notes offer helpful background and context, aiding the listener to appreciate fully these richly embroidered scores.
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