First off, allow me to introduce myself
—I’m Alexander LaFollett, and I am one of the six finalists in the Third Angle New Ideas In Music Competition. I’m thrilled to have been selected for this opportunity, and I look forward to collaborating with Third Angle this season, as well as sharing my progress on the new string quartet I am writing.
The genre of the string quartet has always had special meaning for me for a number of reasons. I’ve been a string player myself for about 20 years, having started on the violin, later picking up the cello and viola, so there’s a certain familiar appeal with the instrumentation. Beyond this, I have a certain aesthetic attraction toward paradoxes, and the string quartet is, in my view, particularly adept at expressing such ideas, on multiple levels. At first glance, the string quartet appears to be a small and very homogenous ensemble, consisting entirely of bowed stringed instruments. That said, the relative similarities actually allow for the timbral subtleties to come to the fore, and furthermore, there’s a wealth of different playing techniques at the string players’ (and composers’) disposal, which can bring forth an astonishingly wide palette of sound possibilities. So much for small and homogenous.
There’s also the matter of the string quartet’s place in the Western European “classical” oeuvre. It was a mainstay of composers from the Common Practice period, commonly acknowledged by musicologists as growing out from the earlier Baroque trio sonata. By the latter part of the 18th century, it had become one of the primary vehicles of chamber music, accumulating an exhaustive repertoire, and like many other established genres of this time period, it developed a certain gravitas in the process—perhaps only second to the symphony. This gravitas is something with which many composers in the past 120 years or so have grappled in innumerable different ways. Some have sought to be part of the tradition, others have appropriated and subverted it in various ways, and there’s a whole continuum in between. Some of these modern approaches have, in turn, generated their own sense of gravitas—Bartok’s six quartets and George Crumb’s Black Angels being prime examples.
I’ve grappled with the tradition conundrum a fair bit myself, as the new work I’ll be writing for Third Angle will be my twelfth string quartet—and it’ll be titled just that, in a nod toward tradition. My personal approach toward the string quartet, both in No. 12 and the previous eleven, has been typified by attempts to make the string quartet sound larger. In general, this has entailed exploiting double stops to create thicker, more expansive textures and sonorities. Since my String Quartet No. 10, I have begun to evolve this sense of breadth by exploiting more extended techniques, and focusing on the timbral subtleties of each instrument in various registers, to evoke a more orchestral sensibility. My work with String Quartet No. 12 has been to take this sensibility to an even further degree. I will demonstrate my approach toward this aspect further in a future blog.
Another aspect of tradition is the matter of pitch organization—more simply put, tonality versus atonality. My approach here has been to completely subvert the issue by adopting a modal language, which, while maintaining a sense of gravitation toward a tonal center (or sometimes multiple tonal centers, in a polytonal/polymodal fashion), uses a wider array of scale materials, and I achieve this gravitation through means other than those used by conventional, Common Practice harmony. Over the past ten years, I have cataloged a series of over 400 modes, all derived from warping the intervallic structures traditional diatonic modes (“church modes”, as they are sometimes called) in various ways. Each of these modes can fit within standard twelve-tone equal-temperament, and be transposed a total of twelve times, creating the equivalent of over 5,000 “key areas”. I call these new formations “paradiatonic modes”, and keeping with Greek and Renaissance modal tradition, have given them all names derived from ancient (predominantly Greco-Roman) geography.
One of the primary modes I have used in Quartet No. 12 has been the Dolopian mode, the 110th mode in the catalog, named after the mountainous region of ancient Greece known as Dolopia. It resembles a standard “Major” scale with its third and fourth degrees raised by one half-step.
Another paradiatonic mode that makes a rather prominent appearance in the quartet is the Edetanian mode, No. 114 in the catalog, named after the ancient region of Edetani, on Spain’s Iberian peninsula. Its intervallic structure is less recognizable yet.
I hope this gives you a general idea of my approach toward this piece, toward the string quartet genre and composition in general. I look forward to sharing more insights with everyone about my new quartet in the coming weeks.
Visual Sensibility and Expression Markings
When composing, I often find myself thinking about visual imagery, to the point at which I will sometimes refer to my compositions as “tone images”. On the surface, this may appear to be a mere synonym for the term “tone poem”, a term originating in the middle part of the 19th century origin, referring to programmatic music (usually orchestral), designed explicitly to describe non-musical phenomena. I do have a greater proclivity toward the visual realm than toward poetry, and to that effect, I have, on occasion, used the term “tone image” in this manner. A prime example of this would be my dissertation, a set of eight orchestral “tone images” based on individual elements on the Periodic Table.
That said, my use of the term “tone image” goes beyond simply referring to pieces with an explicitly acknowledged extra-musical intent, but also toward seemingly “absolute” pieces, like my String Quartet No. 12. Through the process of composing, I often try to imprint a vague, illusory sense of image onto the music. Often times, I will try to convey aspects of this imagery to the performers, through my rather elaborate expression markings in my scores. To demonstrate this concept as it applies to my more “absolute” music, here a few examples of my expression markings from String Quartet No. 12.
The idea I had in my head when writing the first movement was that many parts of it reminded me of some sort of bizarre, fast-forwarded conversation. The pizzicato glissandi, which act as a key motive throughout the movement, can be considered an abstract representation of such a conversation, while the sixteenth note gestures in the second violin and viola help bring across the sense of urgency.
This is taken from the beginning of the second movement. The main expression marking associated with the tempo (“Shaded, floating”) helps set the fact that this movement has a nocturnal sensibility. The markings in the viola (“brooding, like a cool breeze”) and the first violin (“like a spider on water”) basically act as background information, filling in details about the overall atmosphere, and describing, through metaphor, the manner in which those particular musical gestures are to be played.
This is at the climax of the second movement. Here, the markings are less about creating a sense of atmosphere, and more about the psychological experience of being in that environment. In 7 measures, the music shifts from being “brazen”, then “calming down”, before becoming “skittish”.
This is from the third movement, which is extremely short and filled with a certain spastic instability. The markings at this particular spot are indications of discomfort—“nasty”, “squawking”, and “as if running across lava”.
Here is the climax of the third movement—I used these particular markings to evoke a sense of the instability becoming maddening (if the crazy rhythms didn’t do a good enough job). The various ideas that are splattered about the movement collide into one dizzying moment, and the first violin part (marked “like a psychotic bat”) is the most outward representation of this.
This is at the start of a transitory section in the fourth and final movement. The overall effect I was going for with this movement was a sort of anti-climactic ending, imbued with a certain snarky neo-classicism. The “forceful” and “pungent” chorale gesture gives way to a contrapuntal (initially canonic) section. The marking on this new section in all the parts is especially key to bringing across the sense that it is supposed to be a vicious skewering of Common Practice music.
As I had mentioned in my previous blog entry, I have an interest in paradoxes, and this particular example from the fourth movement demonstrates how I use seemingly paradoxical states in expression markings, for effect. At rehearsal letter F, all four parts are marked “delicately, yet awkwardly”. This could potentially be interpreted in a number of ways—perhaps it is awkward in that it is a failed attempt at being delicate, or perhaps it is evocative of a situation in which being delicate is contraindicated, and thus, awkward.