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Peter Garland - String Quartets

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Artist: Peter Garland

Album: String Quartets

Label: Cold Blue

Review date: May. 1, 2009

Elegantly balancing sensuous melodicism and spacious austerity of form, Peter Garland’s string quartets are alluring and inviting, their carefully-wrought complexity often hidden within a luminous transparency.

String Quartet No. 1, “In Praise of Poor Scholars,” takes inspiration and title from a poem by T’ao Ch’ien. Like that ancient Chinese nature poem, it carries a sense of strong epiphany tinged with autumnal melancholy. Throughout the quartet, appealing and epigrammatic cells of melody are treated to the dance-inspired repeats and variations of European Renaissance-era forms and structures. In this, the work is often reminiscent of Lou Harrison (an avowed crucial influence.) But Garland has his own way of framing those melodic epigrams with a compelling and masterful use of space and silence, allowing each line and pattern to resonate clearly and visibly – like, perhaps, Zen calligraphy on a scroll, or the poem’s images of a solitary cloud and a flight of geese. This particular confluence of eastern and western ideals is a signature of Garland’s style, as is the subtle suggestion of American Indian music in the pulse-like rhythmic ground that carries the melodic and harmonic material.

String Quartet No. 2, “Crazy Cloud,” offers more complexity, trying for, and achieving, a wider range of emotion. This is accomplished by the use of longer, more elastic melodic lines, and increased variation of tempo and structure. The piece begins boldly, the mysterious and gorgeous melodic materials arcing, staggered and terraced into upward motion. The second movement is almost ambient in its languid, moody spaciousness: the long lines and dark-timbred low-voiced strings create a hypnotic and exquisitely slow unfurling. An elastic sense of time and architectural space inhabits each subsequent movement, with gestures honoring Mexican song, blues tonalities and, again, American Indian ceremonial dance music. Overall, while the first quartet is pellucid and of-the-moment in its effect, the second quartet seems to ask the listener to come back again and again, to experience it from new and changing angles.

Mention must be made of the string quartet that performs all of this music, Apartment House. The sonic approach they take serves both quartets perfectly. The group conveys great unity, each player contributing through timbre and phrasing to a sense of the ensemble as one resonant instrument, rather than a colloquy of voices.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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