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Unfinished business: Composers interpret fragments of the masters for Brentano String Quartet

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The Brentano String Quartet Photo by Peter Schaaf
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It is a particularly Eurocentric concept, this belief that a “finished” work of music, i.e. music written down on paper, copyrighted, and under the control of a publisher, should automatically be granted a hierarchal seal of approval branding it superior to that of an “unfinished” work. Process is suspect, but a double bar at the end of a score? Booyah! It’s like the composer bagged a piece of big game and has its head mounted on the wall.

The Brentano String Quartet has turned this notion on its head with its project, "Fragments: Connecting Past and Present," co-commissioned by Da Camera of Houston. The quartet paired six living composers with unfinished fragments of music by some of the heavies from the European pantheon and asked each to compose something new in response. The composers were welcome to try and finish or engage the material in whatever way they pleased.

 The quartet paired six living composers with unfinished fragments of music by some of the heavies from the European pantheon and asked each to compose something new in response.

 On Tuesday night at The Menil Collection, the quartet presents a concert of both the unfinished fragments and the newly commissioned music. The resulting program is less a series of incomplete now complete works than a celebration of inspiration and creativity across time.

The unfinished works chosen by the quartet include fragments by Franz Schubert, Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Josef Haydn, Dimitri Shostakovich, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Reaching even further back to the 15th century, composer Charles Wuorinen has incorporated fragmenta missarum or parts of the Mass Ordinary from Josquin Desprez and Guillaume Dufay into a brand new composition. Bruce Adolphe, Sofia Gubaidulina, John Harbison, Stephen Hartke and Vijay Iyer round out the rest of the commissioned composers offering creative responses to fragments of musical history.

The Mozart Effect

Pianist and composer Vijay Iyer is well aware of the weight and heft afforded to Mozart by certain people in the classical music establishment, as well as the notorious Nature magazine article claiming that listening to Mozart boosted one’s IQ. But having studied violin from age 3 to 18 playing repertoire that included Mozart’s string quartets and violin concertos, Iyer is comfortable with simply acknowledging that Mozart's music is “part of the landscape of what is out there.” That landscape certainly includes jazz which, in addition to being Iyer's favored medium of expression, has from its very beginnings embraced and incorporated elements of Western European music.

“I didn’t feel like I had to enter into some dialogue with Mozart the man or his material,” says Iyer about the "Fragments" commission. “It was more like an interesting creative problem.”

 “This piece is not exactly my homage to Mozart,” says Iyer, whose title 'Mozart Effects' references the Nature article. “Finishing a Mozart piece is like a homework assignment…and that was not my goal whatsoever.” 

Brentano Quartet violinist Mark Steinberg presented Iyer with an incomplete work of Mozart’s, containing “…gigantic holes in it…it was a couple pages worth of a score…there are whole passages where there is just one instrument playing…” Iyer was especially struck by the haunted quality of the passages with just a single musical line and no additional accompaniment, like something one would hear inside “an empty house.”

“So rather than filling in the blanks in what (Mozart) wrote,” says Iyer. “I kind of left it as is, and then I kind of pick it up with some other empty, haunted sounding gestures…but then I also treated it like I was sampling the fragment…maybe sample it, transpose it…loop it against itself…the way a contemporary producer might.”

“This piece is not exactly my homage to Mozart,” says Iyer, whose title 'Mozart Effects' references the Nature article. “Finishing a Mozart piece is like a homework assignment…and that was not my goal whatsoever.”

Marian Tropes

Like Iyer, composer, conductor, and pianist Charles Wuorinen, whose creative relationship with The Brentano Quartet goes back 20 years, had no interest in paying homage to composers of the past. “I don’t deal in such things,” says Wuorinen.

Referring to the orphan movements interwoven into his piece, "Marian Tropes," Wuorinen says, “These are pieces I would have liked to have written. And so essentially what I’m doing is stealing them.”

 The one thing the six living composers on the concert each share is a desire to present a…well, finished piece that is their own, not an imitation of somebody else.

 Josquin and Dufay's musical fragments are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

“Prior to the at least the 16th century, as far as I know…no such thing as an unfinished work has survived. Because as far we know there were no scores. What comes down to us is in part books…I took a couple of orphan movements fragmenta missarum from Josquin interlaced with a similar movement or two from Dufay and made a whole new composition from that.”

The title of the final work, "Marian Tropes," refers to texts dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the Josquin fragments. And although his music is far from backward looking, Wuorinen is completely comfortable embracing from Josquin’s time what he calls the “casual interpenetration” of sacred and secular.

“Religion for these people in that period did not occupy a special place…it was woven into the fabric of their lives in every possible way,” says Wuorinen. “More specifically, secular works that were essentially…folk tunes by composers of that period…were often recycled into sacred pieces.”

“There’s no real distinction made between the kind of music produced for sacred use or secular use in that period.”

The one thing the six living composers on the concert each share is a desire to present a…well, finished piece that is their own, not an imitation of somebody else. They are also unanimous in their praise for the Brentano String Quartet, which is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary as an ensemble.

If the concept of "Fragments" is a bit dubious, Iyer has wryly observed that to be tasked with finishing and unfinished piece by Mozart is to “serve as the punch line to a joke,” the enthusiasm to give it a go is contagious, the final result being an entertaining and challenging evening of old and new music.

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