Music & Mayhem Program Note

Welcome to the Aizuri Quartet’s first of five recitals as the 2017-18 MetLiveArts String Quartet-in-Residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Throughout our season you will hear a wildly diverse collection of music that spans a thousand years, crossing oceans and geographical borders. In every piece that we have programmed we have found a voice that speaks to us personally, connects us to a sense of shared humanity and history, and illuminates the complexities of the world around us. 

Tonight’s program is entitled “Music and Mayhem” and explores works composed during and reflective of three distinct periods of political upheaval and intense turmoil. In 1959, Sofia Gubaidulina met Dimitri Shostakovich and played for him on the piano a symphony she had written for her final composition examination. He praised the student work and said, “My wish for you is that you should continue on your own incorrect path.” This word “incorrect” resonated deeply for Gubaidulina throughout her life; in contrast to Shostakovich, she found artistic freedom in being blacklisted and unperformed in the Soviet Union. “I could write what I wanted, without compromise,” she has said, resisting the Soviet Union’s strict aesthetic parameters, aligning with dissidents, experimenting with avant-garde techniques, and writing sacred music whilst religion was marginalized under official state atheism. In Gubaidulina’s String Quartet No. 4 (1993) you will hear us performing alongside two pre-recorded layers of delicate and canonic ricochet lines. We recorded these layers using superball mallets rather than bows, and in the case of one layer, the quartet was tuned up a quarter tone. This singular work reflects Gubaidulina’s spiritual core and her uncompromising incorrectness, with its haunting use of light, music technology and extended techniques that together allude to something mystical and subconscious. 

In Different Trains (1988), Steve Reich also employs pre-recorded tape (we perform live alongside the original recordings by the Kronos Quartet) but in different ways. Throughout the work the strings imitate the melodies of recorded human speech, taken from interviews of Holocaust survivors, a Pullman porter, and Reich’s own governess, in which they describe the years leading up to, during, and immediately after WWII in the United States and Europe. Juxtaposing the sounds of the live string quartet against train sounds and sirens from the 30’s and 40’s, and the propulsive, repetitive rhythms of the pre-recorded tape, Different Trains is both aural documentary and a deeply personal response to the horrors of WWII.

Finally, Beethoven’s much-loved String Quartet Op. 74, nicknamed the “Harp” for its use of pizzicato in the first movement, was written in 1809 during Napoleon’s bombardment of Vienna. It is a lyrical and contemplative work in which Beethoven enjoys the warm comfort of E-flat major and Viennese Classical style, in spite of his intense personal struggles and the violent political upheaval surrounding him. 

It’s hard not to feel like we are living in deeply troubling times. Yet the knowledge that these three incredible works by Gubaidulina, Reich and Beethoven had been written during and in response to such dark periods, has given our quartet some comfort, reminding us of the creative potential and resilience of humanity. Thank you for being here with us.