String Quartet No. 1
String Quartet // 14 mins
[Commissioned by The Elysian Quartet]
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This fluent speaker of Swahili is programmer, DJ of dance music, director of his own record label and composer of modern traditional music as well. That he finds time to comment on his work and ideas is a small miracle.
Inevitably ‘That Question’ presses on ones mind: are there influences of his grandfather (yes – Sergei) to be detected in the work? One has to be careful with wanting to seek a comparison; in fact the reason why Gabriel worked under (several) pseudonyms for many years was exactly to prevent such comparison. It is his aim to let his music speak in its own right. But fortunately I can leave the question unasked; Gabriel automatically tells how, before starting the composition process, he specifically did not listen to his grandfather’s string quartets – he didn’t want to become either “intimidated or over-influenced”. This explains why one hears Cage or Reich rather then grandfather Sergei. “When the quartet was finished and I saw it all worked, I got enough faith to use my true surname” – the product was worthy of the label of quality.
The quartet lasts about fifteen minutes and follows a classical four -movement shape. Throughout the piece the atmosphere is dominated by changeable melodies, which do not seem to follow any line, supported by strident and confronting harmonies. The first impression is that the emphasis of the piece is a rhythmical one. This is what one might expect of a DJ. Prokofiev himself refers to rhythm as “one of the most exciting discoveries of the 20th century and for me an important musical component. But you can’t write a string quartet without attributing equal values to texture and timbre.” He hastens to add that “harmony and melody shouldn’t be forgotten either.” It is remarkable that he adds this in such a passing way. In particular, the melodies in the quartet are very striking, as a result of the strength of their fragmentary construction.
The harmony is also worthy of attention due to the energy generated by the chosen language; choice and placing of particularly the frequently appearing dissonances has been extremely well tended to and is again accentuated by Prokofiev’s keen sense of instrumentation.
There is hardly any development in the first movement. All variable material finds itself between a two-part ostinato of pizzicatos in the cello and a violin motif of descending and diminuendoing notes, appropriately described by Gabriel as “Rhythmic stabs”.
If any of the movements resembles a scherzo it is the second movement, with its subtle thematic treatment and masterly use of effective instrumental effects. There is even a section in which the energy of the work is halved, long enough to be experienced as a Trio.
The third movement opens like a “slow movement”, such as we are used to hearing in a traditional quartet structure. “The most classical movement” as the composer himself describes it, evolves quickly to an up -tempo, almost march-like character. Prokofiev recognises the march, but distances himself from a deliberate application, almost excusing himself: “Without meaning to I found myself composing something very Russian (even Soviet) sounding!” The third movement continues to move between several moods and tempos until the end.
This also applies to the fourth movement. It may seem like a colourful chain of motifs and loose sections but is in fact a traditionally built classical finale. A short introduction, a very appealing theme with glissando’s, a brief “female” second subject, free middle section, a varied return of the first topic and well constructed climax heading for the end – it’s all there. In addition, Gabriel speaks of “40s dance grooves, slid ahead and reversed, like a DJ mixing his records”, but this effect would probably pass over the head of the notorious string quartet listener.
Of course the contrasts in the work are huge. Tormented classical lines and complex rhythmic structures are juxtaposed with crashing dance motifs, layered on top of each other. All that with an easiness that makes one wonder why genres have such strongly limited borders. Anyway, the quartet seems a strong and eloquent formulated call to level those borders, the usually social barriers between music and people listening to it. “In writing the String Quartet I did not have a specific aim of demolishing borders between genres/publics. Composing music with VERY specific and grand aims is dangerous and creatively restrictive I think. But because I am composing and producing music in two different musical worlds/genres, and I have been doing that for most of my life, I hope that my music will naturally soften and question the ‘borders’ between different genres. Generally I can’t help the different styles I work in inter-influence each other; I just have to be careful and conscious that the music always keeps it’s integrity and doesn’t TRY to ‘crossover’, but evolves naturally.”
“However, aside from composing, I have set-up a record label and a monthly ‘classical’ club night, both called NONCLASSICAL. They have a clear aim of breaking down borders between different groups of listeners and opening sounds from different genres to new audiences, especially bring contemporary classical music to new ears.” He appears successful in this. Both this quartet and the second, which he composed recently, and all dance -remixes that are based on it, went down very well amongst a diverse cross-section of the public.
© Sipke Hoekstra (2008)