Program Notes: Attacca Quartet

June 8, 2022

John’s Book of Alleged Dances (1994)

John Adams
Born February 15, 1947, in Worcester, MA

In John’s Book of Alleged Dances, consisting of eleven short pieces, Adams combines from genres and epochs, creating something novel but within a work that still has a familiar sound. John’s Book of Alleged Dances was a commission by the California Center for the Arts for the Kronos Quartet, which gave its world premiere in Escondido, California, on November 19, 1994.

For its premiere, Adams prepared a piano, attaching screws, bolts, rubber erasers, weather stripping, and other material to its strings. The key playing a given string would then produce a particular altered sound rather than a note. The composer sampled the prepared keys, organized the sound into loops, and set them up as short rhythm tracks. The idea was that a member of the quartet would trigger these loops to perform them for the six dances in which this sound is required, but this technique was too complex, so Adams recorded them. Now quartets frequently perform this piece with the pre-recorded prepared piano loops. The order of movements used in recording the work sometimes dictates the order of movements in live performances, but essentially, Adams has prescribed no fixed order for these exuberant but technically demanding pieces. The overall effect is humorous, attractive, and sometimes wild.

Adams describes these eclectic works: “These dances, dedicated to my friends in [the Kronos Quartet], are ‘alleged’ because the steps for them have yet to be invented. They cuss, chaw, hock hooeys, scratch, and talk too loud. They are also, so I’m told, hard to play. The general tone is dry, droll and sardonic.”

In this concert, four selections without prepared piano sound will be performed. Adams wrote the descriptions of the works. 

Toot Nipple: “‘Mrs. Nipple…You probably don’t remember her husband, Toot. When he was young, he was a big fellow, quick and clever, a terror on the dance floor.’” (From Postcards by E. Annie Proulx.) “Furious chainsaw triads on the cello, who rides them like a rodeo bull just long enough to hand them over to the viola.”

Alligator Escalator: “The long, sluggish beast is ascending from the basement level of the local Macy’s all the way to the top of the store and then back down again. Slow slithering scales, played flautando and sul [ponticello], leave invisible tracks on the escalator, splitting the octave in strange reptilian ways. Mothers are terrified, children fascinated.”

Pavane: “She’s So fine: A quiet, graceful song for a budding teenager. She’s in her room, playing her favorite song on the boom box. Back and forth over those special moments, those favorite progressions. She knows all the words. On her bed are books and friendly animals. High, sweet cello melodies for Joan Jeanrenaud [cellist of the Kronos Quartet when the piece was written], who’s so fine.”

Stubble Crotchet: “A sawed-off stump of a piece. Dry bones and hardscrapple attacks (“at the frog” as stringers like to say). An early morning shave with an old razor.”


Clock Catcher (2010); Remind U (2019); Pilgrim Side Eye (2019) 

Flying Lotus
Born October 7, 1983, in Los Angeles, CA

The Three-song Suite by Steven Ellison, known professionally as Flying Lotus, was arranged by Nathan Schram, violinist in Attacca Quartet. Flying Lotus, sometimes called FlyLo, is an American record producer, DJ, and rapper from Los Angeles, CA.

Violist Nathan Schram says, “Because it’s instrumental music, it’s extremely dynamic, it’s super intelligent and sophisticated. And it was such a perfect fruit to try to dig into.” 

Ellison’s recording sessions for these songs began in 2008 in his apartment in Los Angeles. Ellison used a laptop, a sampler, and a drum machine along with live instruments: harp, bass, strings, live drums, saxophone, trumpet, and keyboard. The laptop and sampler were used to produce and manipulate samples. Ellison calls this music a “map of the universe” and a “space-opera,” in which he fused 20th and 21st century music. The music he created was inspired by lucid dreaming, out-of-body experiences, and lucid drugs like mescaline and DMT.  

The Suite consists of Flying Lotus’ re-imaginings of songs. Clock Catcher features fast, “fierce,” off kilter hi-hats. Hi-hats consist of a matching pair of small to medium-sized cymbals mounted on a stand, with the two cymbals facing each other.

The quartet musicians intimately amplify the emotional resonances of Flying Lotus’s Remind U. Their goal of successfully blending musical worlds and breaking down barriers of genre succeeds in creating a distinctive, unique sound. The Attacca Quartet used all sorts of technology on the recording: overdubbing, adding electronic effects and enlisting some EDM producers, like TOKiMONSTA, to work with them. 


Drifting Circles (2019)

Anne Müller
Born in Berlin, Germany

Composer-cellist Anne Müller is based in Berlin, Germany. She was a cellist in many of Berlin’s symphonies before choosing a different path with her music. 

Her debut solo album, Heliopause, was released in 2019. The life-affirming composition Drifting Circles appears on the album, which is named after the boundary where “the sun’s wind ceases to have influence. It is ultimately the border of our solar system. Heliopause marks the end of a long journey but also the start of voyages to explore strange new worlds.”

Two moods or arrangement types characterize this music of experimental minimalism: a drone-like ambience, either floating calmly or creating an epic vastness; and rotating arpeggio arrangements that drift slowly around a chord structure or motif. Drifting Circle merges these two styles together with Müller’s voice, which provides a spacious aural layer behind it. Drifting Circles provides “an orchestra of looped cellos and vocals” and references the style of work of contemporary composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass. 


Real Life (2018)

Louis Cole
Born in Los Angeles, CA

Louis Cole is an American multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter and the co-founder of the electronic/avant-pop/jazz-funk duo Knower. His music contains elements from various contemporary music genres, including jazz, funk, pop, avant-garde, electronic, early lo-fi, and grindcore. Traditionally, lo-fi has been characterized by the inclusion of elements normally viewed as undesirable in professional contexts, such as misplayed notes, environmental interference, or phonographic imperfections. Grindcore is an extreme fusion of heavy metal and hardcore punk that originated in the mid-1980s and takes its inspiration from abrasive-sounding musical styles, such as thrashcore, crust punk, hardcore punk, extreme metal, and industrial. Cole is known for using unusual, counterintuitive chord progressions; his lyrics often include humor and vulgarity,

Real Life, the title track of Cole’s 2018 album, features propulsive beats that are offset by chordal strings; the song’s melody is doubled in octaves. Its pulsating, manic energy blurs electronic and acoustic sounds and forces the body to move, in effect, asking the question: What can and should classical string quartet music be in the 21st century?

Among other things, Cole has been influenced by video game sounds and visuals. Cole has said of the effect of games on him, “That music really dug its way deep into my developing brain. There are a lot of imaginative chord changes, pretty melodies, heavy funk grooves, modulations, insane synth trumpet hits and really cool sounds in those games. I still, to this day, strive to include those kinds of things in my music.”


String Quartet No. 3, “Mishima” (1985)

Philip Glass
Born January 31, 1937, in Baltimore, MD

Philip Glass is one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. Since Glass’s music repeated and varied a very small number of basic musical ideas, the term “minimalism” was applied to his idiosyncratic style, and a number of other composers who were experimenting along the same lines helped turn the style into a movement.

Although Glass’s music is frequently described as minimalist, he prefers the term ‘theatre music.’ He often utilizes a constant beat and subtly shifting rhythms over a static harmonic structure, which tends to hypnotize the listener. Instead of the expected development sections, he uses increasingly complex repetitions and overlapping lines. 

 The lush and undulating String Quartet No. 3 was composed in 1985 as music for Paul Shrader’s film on the life of the novelist and playwright, Yukio Mishima. It is the only Glass quartet that has an explicit program, with each movement clearly labeled.

The film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters portrays the life of this famous contemporary Japanese novelist. The scenes for quartet were shot in black and white, composed for childhood flash-back scenes. These nostalgic “scenes” often have a wistful, sometimes joyful, carefree feel. Glass said, “I anticipated the String Quartet section would be extracted from the film score and made into a concert piece in its own right.”

The pensive first movement, 1957-Award Montage, conveys a melancholic atmosphere. It is made up of variations of a repeated minor key harmonic progression with undulating figures. The second movement, November 25-Ichigaya, is slower and has similar metrical structures and harmonic ideas to the first movement. 

The third movement, 1934-Grandmother and Kimitake, is spirited and vigorous with rhythmic irregularities. The fourth movement, 1962 Body Building, begins tenaciously but becomes more energetic, using musical material from the first movement. The penultimate movement, Blood Oath, alternates between pulsed chords and polyphony, moving with a kind of springy positivity. The last movement, Mishima/Closing, features a sumptuous violin line, which contains fast arpeggiations and a two-note cell that creates an emotionally moving melody with a kind of softness underpinned by familiar chord progressions. 


The Evergreen (2020)

Caroline Adelaide Shaw
Born 1982 in Greenville, NC

New York-based composer Caroline Adelaide Shaw made history in 2013 when she became the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Partita for 8 Voices. Shaw trained as a violinist, earning degrees in violin performance from Rice University and Yale University. She is a doctoral fellow in composition at Princeton University. 

She continues to maintain an active freelance performance career as both a violinist and a singer, and currently sings with the contemporary vocal octet Roomful of Teeth (for whom she composed her Pulitzer-winning Partita) and plays violin with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. 

When Shaw won the Pulitzer Prize, she professed her dislike of the specificity of notation, constantly searching for ways to subvert its exactitude. Sometimes, she achieves this by simply instructing the performers not to adhere too closely to the notation: “What’s written is just a guideline – not exact.” Or again, “This is an approximate rhythm. Play something similar to this. If you find the ends of the bars need to be stretched or compressed, that’s completely fine. The exact rhythm is not important.” 

In her four-movement The Evergreen, composed in 2020, she draws on the rich textures of the landscape, naming the movements Moss, Stem, Water, and Root. 

Shaw has written a note for the piece: 

One day in January 2020, I took a walk in an evergreen forest on Swiikw (Galiano Island), British Columbia, Canada.

I found myself slowing down. My steps were shorter, less frequent. I stopped trying to get to my destination with any real intention or speed. Eventually I stopped moving altogether. I looked, and listened, and felt and smelled and breathed. Like a thousand thousand creatures before me there, some of them also human, I paused and wondered and thought, “There’s wisdom in these trees.” It’s been said before, in ways more eloquent and complex than my little story here. Still.

This piece, the Evergreen, is my offering to one particular tree in that forest. I started writing music years ago as gifts for people (whether they knew it or not), or as companions to a piece of art or food or idea. It was a way of having someone hold my hand through the writing process, a kind of invisible friend to guide me through. This tree is towering, craggy, warped and knotted wrapped in soft green, standing silently in a small clearing where the shadows are more generous to the narrow streams of sunlight that try to speak up in late morning. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that it’s still alive, or that it’s not actually an ancient deciduous tree that has tacitly agreed to be covered in moss. But still, it feels like an evergreen friend, and so I wrote some music for it and have called it the Evergreen. For the soft moss that covers it, for its strong stem that reaches up, for the gentle chaos of dripping water that surrounds it, and for the roots below, ever seeking and nourishing and building.


Carrot Revolution (2015) 

Gabriella Smith
Born December 26, 1991, in Berkeley, CA

Gabriella Smith is a composer and environmentalist. Her music comes from a love of play, as well as exploring new sounds on instruments, building compelling musical arcs, and connecting listeners with the natural world. 

Her music has been performed throughout the U.S. and internationally by eighth blackbird, Bang on a Can All-Stars, the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, the Nashville Symphony, PRISM Quartet, Aizuri Quartet, and yMusic, among others. 

Currently she is working on a version of Lost Coast for cello and orchestra to be premiered by Gabriel Cabezas and Los Angeles Philharmonic in May 2023, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

She has written her own note for Carrot Revolution:

I wrote Carrot Revolution in 2015 for my friends the Aizuri Quartet. It was commissioned by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia for their exhibition The Order of Things, in which they commissioned three visual artists and myself to respond to Dr. Barnes’ distinctive “ensembles,” the unique ways in which he arranged his acquired paintings along with metal objects, furniture, and pottery, juxtaposing them in ways that bring out their similarities and differences in shape, color, and texture. While walking around the Barnes, looking for inspiration for this string quartet, I suddenly remembered a Cézanne quote I’d heard years ago (though which I later learned was misattributed to him): “The day will come when a single, freshly observed carrot will start a revolution.” And I knew immediately that my piece would be called Carrot Revolution. I envisioned the piece as a celebration of that spirit of fresh observation and of new ways of looking at old things, such as the string quartet – a 250-year-old genre – as well as some of my even older musical influences (Bach, Perotin, Gregorian chant, Georgian folk songs, and Celtic fiddle tunes). The piece is a patchwork of my wildly contrasting influences and full of weird, unexpected juxtapositions and intersecting planes of sound, inspired by the way Barnes’ ensembles show old works in new contexts and draw connections between things we don’t think of as being related.

Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.

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