Giorgio Koukl | 2 JUN 2022
Alvin Singleton (b. 1940) is undoubtedly a singular personality among American composers. While eclectic and hugely experimental, his work is nonetheless difficult to categorize. As the booklet text justly remarks, his compositional journey does not permit a division into different creative periods.
In this album, we can follow the composer and his creative work from 1967, the year of the first quartet, until 2019, that of the fourth and final quartet. All of those works are conceived as single-movement compositions. Three of them are world premiere recordings.
The disc starts with String Quartet No. 1, written in 1967, the only one without a title. Its structure is very well defined. The musical material used sometimes recalls Goffredo Petrassi, who was one of Mr. Singleton’s teachers, but is highly original and in its simplicity combines pristine craftsmanship with already solid knowledge of the bowing techniques of all instruments involved.
The four musicians of Momenta Quartet (Emilie-Anne Gendron, Alex Shiozaki, Stephanie Griffin, and Michael Haas) are certainly doing their very best to understand the soul of this score. They do an excellent job in rendering the colors, rhythms, and contrasts, maybe with a small exception: sometimes, the relative lack of vibrato is a cause of a certain dryness of sound.
Of an entirely different nature is the second string quartet, written in 1988, bearing the title Secret Desire to Be Black. Born as a Kronos Quartet commission, it logically bears all the features that incredible and distinctive ensemble could so effectively play.
In the liner notes, Carman Moore underlines that there is no great difference between the chronologically first and last quartets. After analyzing the refined bowing techniques used in this quartet, I would definitely disagree about this statement.
Here the artist-composer fully emerges, treating the musical material as he pleases, obtaining remarkable results. The Momenta Quartet is far more involved in this score, sometimes reaching rare peaks of quality.
Singleton treats the musical material with an absolutely free hand. Not a single line leads the listener to past works of any known composer, so it can easily be marked as a definite highlight of the CD.
The third quartet follows. Written in 1994, it bears the title Somehow We Can. Since the composer is notoriously reluctant to concede any explanations of his frequently enigmatic titles (rightly so in my opinion, the surprise moment of a well chosen title being already part of the thrill of an overall compositional effect) we have no idea about what exactly is meant with this title.
A long tradition of enigmatic titles goes well back in the history of music, maybe beginning with Eric Satie with his Trois morceaux en forme de poire (“Three pieces in the form of a pear”) or even further back in the painter’s milieu, like Renè Magritte with his Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“This is not a pipe”), a nice affirmation for a painting clearly representing a pipe. In this sense, Singleton continues the glorious “dada” tradition, a more than welcome contribution.
The musical texture is deeply mixed, shaken and rather atonal, a-rhythmic and without any form of development, except for a moment of singular beauty placed at approximately two thirds of the duration, where a rare tonal, marvelous, and deeply touching moment emerges, like a blue lake in the middle of a desert.
The last track on this CD is the String Quartet No. 4, written in 2019, called Hallelujah Anyhow. It is the longest of all the quartets, lasting nearly 20 minutes. Its main characteristic seems to be a peculiar treatment of the quartet media as a single, organ-like instrument. There are practically no solos, all of the instruments act as one grand chorus, and the material is full of contrasts. This creates an atmosphere of drama and tension in which one can easily imagine an old Greek theatrical chorus reciting.
The musical choices made in all four quartets are rather unique. Already the primary choice to have all the four quartets in a single movement only is a daring one. Lesser composers would try to divide their inspiration into separate and shorter movements, where it is much easier to disguise a lack of inspiration.
Not so Singleton. He radically proceeds to draw his ideas into a single block of music, most of the time not following existent forms or conventions at all. To do so requires a lot of courage. Such a procedure can backfire terribly, leaving the composer fully exposed, but this never happens in Singleton’s music. The arc he manages to create with nearly absolute security every single time is truly remarkable.
This CD is an easy recommendation for any curious listener eager to discover what is produced today by living composers and indeed a well-chosen introduction to the work of a highly individual and gifted composer. ■