Composed Noise: New Works for Improvising String Quartet (2 discs)

The Noise String Quartet (Veronique Serret, Mirabai Peart, James Eccles, Oliver Miller)
Comprovisation, Improvisation, New Music
Vexations 840-1301
Reviewed by , July 1st, 2014

The Noise String Quartet began as an ensemble committed to improvising its own music. For this, its second CD, The Noise has commissioned seven composers to write pieces that involve both composed and indeterminate elements, including improvisation strategies. Like many commissioning entities The Noise has worked closely with these composers to bring their creative conceptions to fruition.

The title of Rosalind Page’s three-movement Zerkalo (Mirror) is a reference to Andrey Tarkovsky’s autobiographical film of 1974. Picking up on the spiritual aspects of the filmmaker’s artistry, the textures are mostly static, dreamlike contrapuntal lines forming slowly changing consonant-sounding chords, although there are some grinding elements towards the end of Movement 2. Disappointingly, the improvisational or indeterminate concepts being used are mostly unclear to the ear and the program notes give the listener no clues.

The NOISE String Quartet. Image by Michael Wholley

The NOISE String Quartet. Image by Michael Wholley

The free rhythmic and pitch elements of Andrew Batt-Rawden’s 28 are more evident of indeterminate processes and indeed the composer identifies some aspects of his approach such as the use of “graphic” notation. The score features repeated-note textures aided by electronic processing, rendering the 13-minute track quite monotonous after a few minutes.

Alex Pozniak’s Force Fields for electric string quartet explores a good variety of string extended techniques, timbres and textures and has a strong sense of development of both musical and noise ideas. Despite the predominating raw quality of the playing styles, the piece demonstrates a high level of string quartet compositional craft.

In marked contrast, Paul Cutlan’s Merge/Emerge uses a compendium of tonal/chromatic harmonic and melodic ideas and standard melody/accompaniment textures of the classical string quartet repertoire. Cutlan’s background as a jazz musician shines through in some sections of the work. He organises his improvisational elements within strict metrical frameworks, using limited tone sets to maintain tonal coherence.

Although Andrew Ford’s String Quartet No. 4 demonstrates a maturity beyond that of his Composed Noise compositional colleagues, he evokes in this work his teenage fascination with Stockhausen’s meditational works that use verbal instructions rather than music notation. The result is for the most part a serene slowly-changing texture of closely-voiced harmonies imbued with subtle dynamic, timbral, pitch inflection and rhythmic variation. The flamboyant musical trajectories in the last section of the work are no less effective.

Aleatoric principles inspired by John Cage are the basis of Lyle Chan’s Smoke Weather Stone Weather. Chan’s 10 short movements are responses to improvisation strategies on cards that are dealt to the players. For each movement each player responds to his or her own dealt card for that movement. As such, there are a great number of interesting contrasts between the movements and the individual parts of each movement.

Amanda Cole’s Ecliptica is created only from the tones and natural harmonics of the open strings of each instrument of the quartet. Although the open string tones provide an ambient-like pentatonic chordal framework, there are interesting dissonant clashes between the harmonics. Cole’s piece lasts a little over 6 minutes. Mysteriously the track continues in silence for another 11 minutes, whereupon we hear a six-minute collaged “conversation” between musicians about the experience of playing quartet music. There is nothing in the booklet or liner documentation to suggest that this spoken concoction is there on the track.

The pieces commissioned by The Noise String Quartet are expertly realised by the members of the group. Clearly they are equally at home with the rigours of string quartet playing and the improvisational challenges presented to them by the composers with whom they have chosen to work on this unique project.


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