Morendo – c.10 minutes
Badinerie – c.10 minutes
Zibaldone – c.13 minutes
A still tragic dance – c.11 minutes
A door just opened on a street – c.11 minutes
It is curious that a piece with this title, ‘dying’, should be so alive – alive with a vitality not only of invention but of self-invention, by which notes and motifs keep being copied or corrected by one instrument after another. It is odd, too, that this expiring music stays most of the time so loud, which may add to the sense of a musical machine careering along at full throttle, even if generally at a moderate, if jerky, pace, its march tempo subverted by syncopations and irregular note values.
Playing for about ten minutes, the piece is divided into twenty-three sections, rather as if it were a set of variations, which it slightly is, on a pattern of four chromatic neighbours presented right away, in emphatic unison. As a theme, however, this is at once too small to have a clear identity and too big for the composer’s purposes. Instead, the pattern – down a whole tone, up a minor third, down a whole tone – is broken down into constituents that swarm pretty much all through.
The unison starts to be disrupted in the second section, by the cello, after which all bets are off. Even while strongly connected, the instruments can show they have minds of their own. And though the piece is all about notes, it does not have very much to do with traditional quartet ensemble textures; the mood of give-and-take is replaced by urgent jostle. Then it stops, turns into something else. The instruments don mutes, slow down, space out. The tempo picks up again after this, but the clock is breaking down. Morendo.
A STILL TRAGIC DANCE
Composers love ambiguous titles. Is this dance ‘still tragic’ or is it frozen into stillness?; are we to imagine dancers, or the dance of life, and where is tragedy? In fact, as so often, the title came after the music, lifted from a Rabelais translation footnote for its aptness and strangeness. We may simply note that dance implies movement, a space danced around, and expect a serious intent.
John Woolrich is deep in a productive vein of quartet-writing, collecting shortish pieces into A Book of Inventions, each with an allusive title and clearly defined character, each around 10 minutes long. Short yes, but packed with incident, these pieces feel classical in their respect for the medium and its canon, their working out of tightly controlled material across something we can think of as a journey (many of Woolrich’s titles imply voyaging or physical spaces passed through) and a lack of extraneous techniques; modernist in their concern with the vertical as much as the horizontal, how they juxtapose material,
their uniquely personal voice.
Stravinsky warned of the pitfalls of talking about music, noting Schumann’s remark that ‘in music nothing is proven’. Suffice to say that viola and cello do set off on a kind of dance, urgent, halting, ricocheting off each other, which is taken up and variously transformed across the work’s span. The tone is insistent throughout, and we are rarely without at least a forte dynamic in the texture. The urgency is occasionally intercut with a stasis of single held notes or a brief silence, until finally the music, volume abruptly turned down, evaporates into nothingness. Beyond this, it’s up to us to bring our attentiveness and complete the circle which gives music its life and meaning. John Woolrich provides a route; we bring our own map.
A DOOR JUST OPENED ON A STREET
Reflecting Emily Dickinson’s poem of the same name, John Woolrich’s A door just opened on a street captures a breadth of mood and intensity belying its modest duration. Cast in a single movement, a mysterious and compelling continuity is drawn between numerous contrasting episodes which pair sweeping, often restless lyrical lines with mechanical repeating figures and hushed chorales. Woolrich’s harmony plays with similar contrasts, sometimes driving the music forwards boldly, sometimes receding into a more static and introspective world. The result has a searching quality which immediately captivates and takes the listener on a far-reaching journey full of unexpected openings.