String Quartet No. 2 (2008-2009), 18 minutes
Commissioned by the Shanghai Quartet for their 25th anniversary season
Premiere: April 23, 2009, by the Shanghai Quartet at the Freer Gallery, Washington, DC. Commissioned by the Shanghai Quartet.
As a composer, I try to best represent in musical terms my own individual voice in each work that I write. Even though each composition addresses different artistic challenges, issues of my Asian identity underscore much of my work. Oftentimes, the source of inspiration for a work lies in Asian folk materials, as is the case in this String Quartet No. 2, which uses a Chinese folksong as the basis of the introduction, interlude, and postlude.
Having heard the Shanghai Quartet in performance and on recordings many times, I realized that the group has not only the technical and musical artistry to rival any of the top string quartets in the world, but also a special lyricism and sensitivity that sets it apart. I wanted to write music that could highlight all the above qualities for the group, and chose a format of six shorter movements, with each movement being a study in a certain mood or affect, represented in the subtitles of the movements. These descriptions are not to be taken literally, but are more evocative in flavor. The first movement, Introduction, introduces the folk song as a chorale with the instruction “to be played like a consort of viols.” In other words, I wanted an ancient sound quality to this introduction, as though the movement was written many moons ago. The second movement, subtitled “Of the Wind,” evokes ferocity and aggression, and the challenge comes with the different bow strokes involved and the virtuosic scalar passages featured. The third movement, “Of Birds and Insects,” is meant to be playful and humorous, using many off-the-bow strokes, natural harmonics, and ornamentation, including glissandi and trills, to depict the sounds of nature. The fourth movement, Interlude, restates the folksong of the first movement, but in a disguised form in which each note of the melody is played by a different member of the quartet—hence the term klangfarbenmelodie, German for “tone-color-melody.” The fifth movement, “Of Tribes and Villages,” features a distinct rhythmic drive as well as a songful melody in the middle section. The last movement, “Of Ghosts and Memories,” restates the folk song as a slow chorale and is constantly interjected with quotations, or “memories,” of the previous movements.
II. Of the Wind
III. Of Birds and Insects
IV. Interlude – With Calmness: “Klangfarbenmelodie”
V. Of Tribes and Villages
VI. Postlude: Of Ghosts and Memories
(There will be no pauses between the first and second, second and third, and fifth and sixth movements)
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