John Harbison

Article excerpt

John Harbison. The First Four String Quartets. Lydian String Quartet. Centaur CRC 2985, 2009.

There is an argument to be made--and more than one critic has made it--that the fundamental problem with serial composition (and, therefore, with a large amount of twentieth-century music) is not that it is difficult or complex, but rather that it is based on systems that make abstract sense but not aural sense. There are themes, there is variation, there may even be counterpoint, but because those structures are built on musical gestures that communicate no sense of tension or development and because they are divorced from tonal context, they achieve a mathematical aim without giving the average (or even the reasonably trained) listener any reasonable way to perceive and enjoy the unfolding structures. Many of the twentieth century's most successful composers (in artistic, commercial and critical terms) are those who found ways to take the harmonic and even some of the larger structural innovations of the period and harness them to patterns perceivable by listeners--some of them traditional and familiar, some of them less so. John Harbison is one such composer, and his first siring quartets offer four excellent but very different examples of his achievement in that regard. …


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