An Unusually Adventurous Vocalizing Quartet

United StatesUnited States Lembit Beecher, Chinary Ung, Ken Ueno, Mason Bates: Del Sol String Quartet, Roulette, Brooklyn. 15.1.2014 (DS)

Lembit Beecher: These Memories May Be True (2012)
Chinary Ung: Spiral X: In Memoriam (2007)
Ken Ueno: Peradam (2012)
Mason Bates: Bagatelles, for string quartet & electronics (2011, NY Premiere)


I wonder what the Italian Futurist painter, Umberto Boccioni, would have thought of the Ear Heart Music series’ most recent foray into matching music with visual media? I’m going to go with “thrilled.” During Bagatelles by Mason Bates—which marries the string quartet with an electro-minimal deejay mix more likely to be heard under New York’s Williamsburg Bridge—the computer visual artist Joshue Ott created digital paintings, many of which came out looking like, well, moving Boccioni’s. But of course! If you use a technical development to make art (i.e., a laptop), then it stands to reason that the result could resemble works that, in their time, used an older media (painting) to capture the aura of new mechanical developments (industrialization).

 This was just one of several surprising delights on the evening’s program performed by the West-Coast based Del Sol String Quartet. Another was the concise but scintillating introduction that the composer Ken Ueno (who circled his neck with an orange scarf and made it look cool and not pretentious) gave to his work Peradam. He explained that his compositions are written specifically for the people who will play them. But it was the reasoning behind this that gave me the delightful shiver one feels when someone eloquent goes right to the essence of an idea. He takes rock music as his paradigm. Ueno loves the Rolling Stones, for example. But that does not mean he loves to hear a cover band play the songs of the Rolling Stones; there is no substitute. Thus, Peradam he wrote for the Del Sol String Quartet and only the Del Sol String Quartet, because its members have the unusually particular talent of being able to sing at the same time that they play—in particular, their violist does some mean gargling throat singing.

 This multi-talented violist, Charlton Lee, proved to be the undeniable favorite of the evening. In every piece, his dynamic embrace of the alto part was captivating to hear and exciting to watch. He dug into the earthly power of his instrument, starting Lembit Beecher’s Shostakovich-reminiscent These Memories May Be True with unbridled fluidity. He did not hold back in reaching for a combination of the strange and beautiful, as he blended his voice with the transcendent meditative quality evoked in Peradam. And while Del Sol clearly plays with genuine respect and affection for the works in question, Lee leads the group to an unusually adventurous place, yet giving them that confidence that makes some new music surprisingly easy to listen to.

 And even though it stretched the evening a little past a school night’s bedtime, Ear Heart Music included a fourth work that would highlight Del Sol’s vocal prowess. Spiral X: In Memoriam by Chinary Ung, is an eight-part string quartet that captures symbolically the voices of the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Del Sol nailed it—technically, emotionally and creatively—and humorously, as they pointed out (with, I suspect, no pun intended) that “we’ll be playing with ourselves tonight.”

 Daniele Sahr