Cypress String Quartet; Cecily Ward, Tom Stone, Jennifer Kloetzel, Ethan Filner. Photo by Basil Childers
Composer Elena Ruehr has earned the well-deserved honor of having a CD dedicated to her string quartets. The new recording, by the Cypress String Quartet, “How She Danced,” is consistently fine and satisfying. These are excellent pieces, written with a great deal of skill, judgment and intelligence and, most important, clear, direct and empathetic communication. This is music that fills up the mind and the soul. Ruehr is a modern romantic, her music comes at the point of a line that flows from medieval music through Mozart and Beethoven, includes shadings of Brahms and Bartok, touches subtly on Stravinsky and Philip Glass, and is always in her own strong, cogent voice. In music that is new, it’s inevitable to discuss the issue of accessibility, meaning how willing would listeners who enjoy classical music but are wary of unknown works produced after World War One be to listen to this CD. In this case, the music is both completely accessible and uncompromising in its ideas and means.
Music that makes its intentions clear, no matter how new or unfamiliar the idiom, is usually music that is attractive to the ear. Ruehr’s language is clear, colorful and precise, she uses familiar and effective devices like building force and intensity by layering patterns, or placing a long, evocative line above an odd-meter, accented and syncopated bass. She lays her phrases and sections out clearly and every moment conveys a sense of directed purpose, that the ear may not be able to anticipate where the music will go next but it is fully confident that it will go someplace that makes sense. With that combination of thought and craft, Ruehr is free to produce some very expressive music.
She may be easy to hear, but what she has serious things to say and never panders. The overall emotional affect is that of an inward contemplation, often turning melancholy but always redeemed with a sense of restoration. It’s Romantic in the way it is emotionally laden and in how the overall logic is expressive of feeling, rather than structure. The music is consistently lovely and rich, and also tough and rhythmically vibrant, especially in the hands of the Cypress Quartet, who are superb. As a group they have a warm, full sound and an excellent blend of voices and intonation (the recording quality is excellent, with clarity, depth and presence, although there is a bad edit at the end of Quartet 3). They play theses pieces with the sense of confidence and familiarity usually heard in only the standard repertoire.
The music, her String Quartets 1, 3 and 4, spans twenty years of her career and it’s notable that her craft is fully realized in the earliest piece. The CD begins with the most recent piece. It opens atmospherically, then a simple, repeated rhythmic pattern draws itself to two chord cadence from Beethoven, expands the harmonic material even as it fixates on the rhythm, before finding it’s way to a lyrical romanticism that is a direct legacy of Janacek. The music is evocative and always clear that it means what it says, every moment has a purpose that is both discrete and integrated into a later whole, and this includes the colors and phrases that speak of memories of previous composers; the ‘Minuet’ movement recalls Bartok and the ‘Finale’ adds to that a cadence that reminds me of the powerful cadence that is the central harmonic feature in Einstein on the Beach. This is not imitation nor the pencil and paper equivalent of sampling, it’s a statement of expressive purpose, a way for the composer to say what her aesthetic values are and to add her own voice to the world her forbears made possible.
Her compositional voice is powerful. She has an ear for a combination of a shifting, supple pulse and for the combination of ensemble sound and harmonic motion that carries emotional force and sonic beauty. The emotions she expresses have a bite and rawness that is gripping. Her melodies can sound like the sinuous call of the muezzin, in the ‘Aria’ of Quartet 4, or like Brahms in their physical presence and strength. Bartok is a consistent touchstone in the way she uses the accented, rhythmic energy that bursts out of his own great Quartets, most apparently in Quartet 3, but she mixes it with the kind of displacement of melodic line that Stravinsky got so much mileage out of, so that the opening of the Quartet dances to a odd-metered beat but the melody keeps shifting just out of reach. Listening to it is like digging into a bowl of salted nuts, each morsel of sound increases the desire to hear the next.
Last on the recording is the Quartet 1 with its foundation in the music of the 12th century composer Perotin. She uses the rocking melody of his organum as the material for a set of variations, but she up-ends the standard variation form. Rather than demonstrating all the different things she can do with the material, she presents a variation, spins it out into a longish development, then returns to Perotin, only to develop something new from it. The music goes back and forth from literally repeating the past to trying to spin away from it. The closing ‘Estampie,’ a medieval dance form, is an excellent mixture of Bartok, the Stravinky of Les Noces, Perotin and Ruehr’s own sensibility and voice. This is a superb release, one of the contenders already for best of the year and some of the finest American String Quartets since those of George Rochberg. My highest recommendation.