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Apology for a String Quartet

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Apology for a String Quartet

Not "apology" in the sense of I'm sorry I wrote it, but in the sense of an explanation of how and why.

I emigrated to Vancouver Island when I was fourteen years old, so it came at a formative moment in my life. I say "emigrated" because that was what it felt like--it seemed as if I were entering an entirely new world. Previously we had lived in quite a few very small towns in northern Alberta and British Columbia--towns of a few hundred people that had virtually nothing in the way of cultural resources. The town we moved to on Vancouver Island was many times larger and had an actual library, if a small one.

The landscape was also utterly different, instead of the rolling birch-clad hills of northern Canada, there were towering forests of Douglas fir, steep mountains, and the vast Pacific ocean. You could stand on the street and, looking to the West, see a looming glacier. Turning around, you could see the waters of Georgia Strait which separates Vancouver Island from the mainland.

After high school I had a couple of jobs that took me to the north end of the island. Vancouver Island is fairly large, 456 km (283 mi) in length, 100 km (62 mi) in width at its widest point, and 32,134 km2 (12,407 sq mi) in area. While there I experienced some moments of, I'm not sure what to call them, epiphany, moments of transcendental astonishment? One was when I was hiking during a long midday break and cleared a ridge to be confronted with the enormous height of the tallest mountain on the island and one I wasn't even aware of being near! It rose up and up, an unclimbable snow-clad peak. Of course, people do climb it, but not me. Another moment was even further north on the island, in a remote area accessible only by a rudimentary logging road. At the end of a narrow valley, logged off and now covered in wild flowers, rose two peaks, each in their symmetry resembling Japan's Mount Fuji, but two of them, facing each other, with a sheet of pure snow-covered glacier arcing between them.

These experiences of my youth are the inspiration for the quartet, my second for this combination of instruments. Like Olivier Messiaen, I find the natural world, or parts of it, to be a spur to try and capture something of the feeling of experiencing it in music. The three movements are titled "Mountain with Birdsong," "Moments in the Forest," and "The Surrounding Ocean." Together they capture the three most salient aspects of the Vancouver Island landscape. There is an element of nostalgia as well, as I left Vancouver Island many years ago to live elsewhere in Canada and then to move to Mexico where I currently live. But those moments experienced in my youth resonate with me still.

I wrote most of the quartet in 2020 on commission from the Pro Nova Ensemble of Vancouver led by violinist Lucia Roh. Due to the pandemic however the ensemble was forced to cancel two seasons of performances and are only now returning to a normal concert schedule. I am very pleased that they are scheduling the premiere of the quartet for May 2023. I had completed the quartet but set it aside as the original premiere was canceled. Taking it up again now, I am unsatisfied with the first movement in particular which I am extensively revising. A lot of that consists in simply editing out passages that I don't like.

How does one compose music? As one composer of my acquaintance answered the question, "I just put down the notes that sound good." As good an answer as any, but not too satisfying! I am a bit wary of discussing how I compose in too much detail as it risks centipedal problems that Glenn Gould described once: a centipede was minding his business one day when someone asked him, when he set out to go somewhere, which leg did he start with? Contemplating this question so confused the creature that he became paralyzed and couldn't move!

I draw techniques and methods from many places, of course, but some important influences are Olivier Messiaen, Dmitri Shostakovich and Asian, especially Japanese, music. But all this is funneled into the idea of capturing, not any kind of depiction or representation of a natural landscape, but rather the feelings that it engenders. As Beethoven said regarding his Symphony No. 6, it is "more the expression of feeling than painting".

How I basically work is to allow my mind to freewheel and when ideas emerge to see where they might fit into my general conception. I might write a movement several times, then excise great chunks of it and try again. Much of what you come up with is junk, after all. One of the most important compositional acts is the removing of unsatisfactory material. As Schoenberg once said, pointing to the eraser end of a pencil, "this end is more important than the other end."

I am going to arrange for the recording of the performances (there will be two or three) and then put them together into an archival version which I will share with you. It might even be possible to do a good video.

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