You won’t hear anything else quite like Vivian Fung’s “Insects and Machines” this summer at the Aspen Music Festival.
“We’ve never played or heard anything like this piece,” said American String Quartet violist Daniel Avshalomov, who will perform it with his group on July 24 at Harris Concert Hall.
There isn’t much string music that the American String Quartet — celebrating its 45th anniversary this year — has not heard or played. But Fung has done it with this wild 12-minute trip down the sonic rabbit hole — mimicking the buzz of swarming insects, making a waltz out of it, circling the listener’s head like a bug in pursuit, and then gradually morphing it into a mechanized whine.
The adventurous Juno Award-winning composer, born in Canada and now based in California, has made a name for herself by crafting idiosyncratic new soundscapes and breaking fresh ground in classical music.
“If you are coming for melodies and harmonies, you’re going to be baffled,” Avshalomov said. “It’s all rhythms and patterns and metric changes.”
For a dose of melody and harmony at the Aspen recital, the Quartet will prime the audience with the crowd-pleasing Dvořák’s beloved “American” String Quartet No. 12 and close with with Cesar Franck’s Piano Quintet (with the seemingly ubiquitous pianist Anton Nel joining.) They’re picky about the challenging, contemporary pieces they perform and champion, such as Fung’s.
“Those we take on, we don’t just play the premiere and drop it,” Avshalomov explained. “We tour with it, we program it with things that complement it. Vivan Fung is a great example of that.”
The quartet premiered “Insects and Machines” two months ago in New Jersey at the Red Bank Chamber Music Society. But the quartet’s relationship with Fung goes back 17 years, to her time as a doctoral candidate at Juilliard. The American String Quartet had been asked to sit in on a recital of new string works by composition students, and heard a Fung movement that was entirely pizzicato — the musicians setting aside their bows and plucking the whole time. Nobody Avshalomov knew of had done this since Bartok in his Fourth Quartet.
“She looked at it and said, ‘Yes, it’s good but can there only be one?’” he recalled. “She asked for criticism and we said, ‘Where are the other three movements? You’ve got to finish this thing!’”
The Quartet eventually took the piece on tour and has continued championing Fung’s work, most recently commissioning Fung to write what would become “Insects and Machines.”
“When you’re finished, it’s this wonderful feeling,” Avshalomov said of playing Fung’s work. “You’ve stretched your bran in a new way you never have before.”
Of course, being the American String Quartet carries a little extra weight during this themed “Being American” season in Aspen.
Avshalomov joked that, when he heard about the theme, he thanked Music Fest administrators for singling out his group. But the name, he noted, is little more than that. The quartet, Avshalomov recalled, chose the moniker after going nameless for a bit at the outset in 1974, when they won both the Coleman Competition and Naumburg Award and were thrust upon the world stage.
“We said, ‘In 1976 there is going to be a big bicentennial year and we might get a boost from that,’” he recalled with a laugh. “And here we are 45 years later.”
The Quartet is in Aspen for its long-standing summer residency at the Music Fest, mentoring emerging and student quartets at the school. But Avshalomov’s Aspen connections go back even further. He saw his first concert here as a child in 1958 and was a student here in 1968, serving on the faculty since 1976. So he’s seen the festival evolve from since nearly its inception. He recalled how, in the late 1950s, the original Music Tent was propped up with a massive wooden center pole that would occasionally be lifted from the ground by a strong wind and crash loudly to the ground.
“That was my favorite part of any concert as a child,” he recalled. “I’d sit and watch that pole the whole time. Luckily my taste in music has grown slightly more sophisticated.”
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