Progressive Chamber Music

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Ron Lawrence

The conflict/merging of the sacred and the profane has been a major theme in western culture since the rise of Christianity. In the modern world, one expression of this conversation has been the gradual breakdown of the barriers between contemporary academic music and popular and folk music traditions. The aesthetic of the Sirius Quartet and our Progressive Chamber Music Festival is an expression of this ongoing blending. We created the festival to be an annual opportunity to showcase the diversity and depth of the community of like-minded composer/performers. On a more prosaic level it is an attempt to create a new “bin in the record store” for this mulatto style (perhaps labeled “omnivores’ delight”).

THE SIRIUS QUARTET REVELS IN THE MUSICAL SMORGASBORD THAT THE DIGITAL TIDAL WAVE HAS BROUGHT TO THE INTERNET.

The Sirius Quartet revels in the musical smorgasbord that the digital tidal wave has brought to the internet. With a few taps on a keyboard, anyone can access the entire canon of humanity’s musical experience. The opportunities for cross-fertilization of musical styles, performance techniques, and creating new social contexts for musical performance are abundant. The Sirius Quartet has been dedicated to exploring this new world, and the artists we’ve presented during the Progressive Chamber Music Festival for the past two years all embrace and explore these possibilities.

However, there are dangers in the digital tidal wave that has washed over the new millennium. Beyond the obvious steering of a complacent audience into the “if you like that, you’ll love this” cul-de-sac, the configuration of the software programs and their default settings creates a huge temptation to allow the machines and plug-ins to make crucial aesthetic decisions.

Without making a conscious decision, the medium can become the message. For example, the editing process can dictate what should be musical/emotional decisions. The click map is a wonderful tool when writing music to picture, but expressing rubato is time consuming. It’s easier to just loop some cool beats and lay it on the click map. The technology has dictated the musical style. Plug-in technology is also insidious. Rather than make a conscious decision about the color palette, the composer/producer will just plug in the funky ’70s Fender Twin bass sound from his or her library. It would take hours of painstaking listening to get under the hood and tweak the software to find an original sound. Once again the technology has preemptively dictated choices, homogenizing the style. The composers/performers of Sirius and our colleagues use improvisation and the spontaneity of extended techniques to combat this homogenization. We want our music feel homemade and give the audience the sensation of “fresh from the pot.”

I think my personal journey to becoming a creative musician began while driving around Michigan as a teenager with my car radio blaring rock and roll. I reveled in the breathtaking tonal and emotional palette of the electric guitar. When I arrived in New York in the early 1980s, the classical conservatory training of instrumentalists was increasingly specialized and recording techniques were creating a style and sound that worshiped velocity and close-miked sizzle over warmth and soulfulness. There was a “correct violin sound” and one’s education and technical training focused exclusively on producing that timbre and emotional quality. I yearned for that wider palette of the electric guitar. As a listener, I was as drawn to Sonny Boy Williamson or Bata drumming as I was to Babbitt or Boulez. New York, always a nexus for the melting pot of cultures, gave me the opportunity for an almost anthropological exploration of the roots of popular and folk music styles.

Playing with a few charanga and tango bands taught me that each particular style has its own unique technical challenges distinct from the classical tradition. Not only does each folkloric tradition have a unique rhythmic feel, but one’s physical approach to the instrument must be flexible enough to step outside of the classical concept of “good violin” playing. As a performer and composer, choices of bow distribution, quality of attack and decay, and tonal variety inform the rhythmic feel and emotional content of any style.

 

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