String Fling

A hot Gen-X quartet plays new music by Tucsonans Daniel Asia and Dan Coleman.

The cypress is often associated with cemeteries and the dead, but the youthful Cypress String Quartet is coming to town with music by composers very much alive. In fact, they walk among us.

Daniel Asia and Dan Coleman both serve on the music faculty at the University of Arizona. Asia has headed the composition department there since 1989, after extensive work in Oberlin, New York and London. Coleman, nearly 20 years Asia's junior, is a more recent arrival; at age 30 he's already a widely commissioned composer, and will be the Tucson Symphony's composer in residence next season.

Asia, the Phoenix Symphony's composer in residence from 1991 to 1994, has been fulfilling commissions right and left for years, but his String Quartet No. 2 is one piece he wrote on spec--and it's taken more than 15 years to get it played. The April 4 Cypress performance at the UA's Holsclaw Hall will be the work's world premiere.

"It's the weirdest thing," Asia says. "I wrote it just because I felt like writing a string quartet, and then I put it in the proverbial composer's drawer and went on to the next commission. It's very hard, and these guys have been working their tails off."

"It's one of the harder pieces we've ever played," says Tom Stone, the San Francisco-based group's second violinist. "It's right up there with Berg's Lyric Suite, and the writing has a lot of similarities with Berg's. It's very, very dense. It's very chromatic and it's very beautiful. It has something of an American language to it harmonically, like George Crumb and other composers, but it's also post-Romantic, expressionistic writing. It's an incredible challenge; we've spent hours and hours with it, treating it with great care and patience. Anything less than that and the audience will think it sounds like junk."

Asia says the quartet, written around 1985, before his music started gravitating to more tonal centers, "alternates between being very ruminative and very motoric. It's quite contrapuntal in nature, and it's a very large set of variations. One variation is almost all harmonics--it's very ghostlike, spindly, almost non-corporeal. This piece really exploits the string-quartet medium; I utilize the full range of possibilities, but without any knocking or banging like I do in my first quartet."

Dan Coleman's quartet, the newer of the two, is actually the more conservative. He wrote it expressly for the Cypress Quartet to launch its ongoing "Call and Response" project.

"We had seen throughout the quartet literature all sorts of interesting connections, where the composers are almost speaking to each other through their music." says Stone. "So we decided to do this series of programs where we'd play two older quartets where we see this happening, and then commission a composer to write a response to this dialogue."

The initial program, first performed two years ago, consisted of Mozart's K. 464 quartet, followed by Beethoven's Opus 18 Number 5, which was inspired by Mozart's themes and overall structure. Then came Coleman's Quartetto Ricercare, which not only takes up the variation form employed by both Mozart and Beethoven, but also comments on music written during the intervening two centuries.

"I tried to do something kind of eccentric," Coleman says. "So many classical concert programs, especially at chamber-music concerts, read like menus of the centuries--you get something from the 18th century, and then something from the 20th, and then go back and pick up something from the 19th. Audiences are used to getting this stylistic prism, so I wanted to do it all in one piece, to write something through the prism of the 19th and 20th centuries. There are variations that sound to my ears like Brahms and Dvorák, and some others are like Britten and Stravinsky."

Coleman says that you don't need to know Mozart and Beethoven in order to understand his Quartetto Ricercare. "I tried to write a piece that exists in its own world," he says. This week, Coleman's world will intersect not only with Asia's String Quartet No. 2 but with Maurice Ravel's Sole, beloved quartet of 1903.

Young though he was, Coleman already felt self-assured writing for strings. "I'd had an association with Metamorphosen, a string orchestra in Boston, since I was 21, so I was very comfortable with the string instruments technically," he says. "A lot of people's first string quartets can be self-conscious and nervous, because they think they have a lot to prove. But I tried to be as unself-conscious as I could and just wrote music I wanted to hear in the medium and not care if people took it seriously or not."

And how successful do the quartet members think Coleman was at writing for their instruments? "Well, music can be great without being really idiomatic for strings," Stone says cautiously. "Mendelssohn is idiomatic for strings, but Beethoven is not, so I'd say that Dan's music is less idiomatic than Mendelssohn but more idiomatic than Beethoven. Dan understands string instruments very well. He used to date a really incredible violinist, and he has the sound in his head and he knows what the instrument can do."

As for Asia, "I'd written one string quartet before," he says, "so I had a good idea of what to do, but being a trombone player does not prepare you for the complexity of writing for strings. I had to go back and redefine some phrase markings, to make it more clear what was going on."

The result, as Stone has pointed out, is a challenge, but that doesn't put the players off. "We work really hard on these pieces and then reserve judgment on them until after at least one performance," he says. "You can get mad at a piece, especially when it exposes your weakness, but we just fight through that and not let it affect how we look at it. Our first reaction to Dan Asia's quartet is that it's a wonderful piece."

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