Magazine article The New Yorker

String Theory

Magazine article The New Yorker

String Theory

Article excerpt

In the course of inventing the string quartet, Haydn molded it into a genre that embodied an Enlightenment ideal of civility--four voices engaged in stimulating conversation. Since then, composers have been variously civil or uncivil, and Julia Wolfe belongs to the latter group. Her powerful one-movement works, which combine the violent forward drive of rock music with an aura of minimalist serenity, use the four instruments as a big guitar, whipping psychedelic states of mind into frenzied and ecstatic climaxes. "Julia Wolfe: The String Quartets," a new album on Cantaloupe, is a showcase for the three she's written so far, their differing temperaments perfectly matched to the distinctive talents of three young American groups. Ethel, downtown's reigning string ensemble, revels in the rough energy of "Dig Deep"; the Cassatt String Quartet's gentler mien is happily suited to "Four Marys," a rich and joyful work influenced by Wolfe's love of the Appalachian dulcimer; and the Lark Quartet dispatch "Early That Summer," a trenchant essay tethered somewhere between Beethoven and Janis Joplin, with gleaming sound and punchy, athletic rhythms.

The quartets of Robert Schumann, another radical, lie at the opposite extreme: they want to be songful, symphonic, and suggestive all at once, and their protean demands scare most ensembles away. …

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