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Pacifica Quartet
Contemporary Voices

Virtual meeting date: Monday, December 7 at 7:00pm

Where to listen

Contemporary Voices is available for purchase from Cedille Records and Amazon.

Purchase on: Cedille Records | Amazon
Stream on: Spotify | Apple Music

Listening Guide

Contemporary Voices features works written for, and dedicated to, the Pacifica Quartet by three female Pulitzer Prize-winning composers. Juxtaposing works by these three distinguished composers creates a musical narrative that gives voice to many important themes of our time. Below are notes written by the composers themselves, listening points to provide context and insight into these compositions, and discussion points to aid in conversation and give listeners additional information to better understand these masterpieces:

Shulamit Ran

Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory | String Quartet No. 3 (2012-2013)

Jennifer Higdon

Voices (1993)

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet (2007)

Shulamit Ran Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory | String Quartet No. 3
Notes by Shulamit Ran in italics

The title of my string quartet takes its inspiration from a major exhibit devoted to art by German artists of the period of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) titled “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s,” first shown at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006-2007. Nussbaum would have been a bit too young to be included in this exhibit. His most noteworthy art was created in the last very few years of his short life. The exhibit’s evocative title, however, suggested to me the idea of “Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory” as a way of framing a possible musical composition that would be an homage to his life and art, and to that of so many others like him during that era. Knowing that their days were numbered, yet intent on leaving a mark, a legacy, a memory, their art is a triumph of the human spirit over annihilation. The individual titles of the quartet’s four movements give an indication of some of the emotional strands this work explores.

First Movement | That which happened (das was geschah)

is how the poet Paul Celan referred to the Shoah – the Holocaust. These simple words served for me, in the first movement, as a metaphor for the way in which an “ordinary” life, with its daily flow and its sense of sweet normalcy, was shockingly, inhumanely, inexplicably shattered.

  • The work opens with the sounds of “sweet normalcy,” as depicted in long lyrical lines introduced in the opening bars by violins and featured throughout the quartet.
  • The rest of the movement is a contrast: life is “inexplicably shattered” and depicted in moments of aggressive unison playing – marked in the score as “incisive, marcato”

Second Movement | Menace

is a shorter movement, mimicking a scherzo. It is also machine-like, incessant, with an occasional, recurring, waltz-like little tune – perhaps the chilling grimace we recognize from the executioner’s guillotine mask. Like the death machine it alludes to, it gathers momentum as it goes, and is unstoppable.

  • This scherzo-like movement opens with music that is “machine-like” and “incessant,” a theme throughout the movement, which features sturdy and upright rhythms.
  • Soon afterwards, the violins play contrasting waltz-like music, which is marked in the score to be played “charming” and a bit “tipsy”.
  • In this movement, and throughout the quartet, Ran uses extended instrumental techniques including col legno (hitting the wooden stick of bow on the string), foot stomping, and a surprise technique used at the end of the movement.

Third Movement | If I perish – do not let my paintings die.

These words are by Felix Nussbaum who, knowing what lay ahead, nonetheless continued painting until his death in Auschwitz in 1944. If the heart of the first movement is the shuddering interruption of life as we know it, the third movement tries to capture something of what I can only imagine to be the conflicting states of mind that would have made it possible, and essential, to continue to live and practice one’s art: bearing witness to the events. Creating must have been, for Nussbaum and for so many others, a way of maintaining sanity, both a struggle and a catharsis – an act of defiance and salvation all at the same time.

  • The third movement opens with a galloping figure played col legno, followed by a powerful unison that is to be played “like large bells”.
  • Haunting and fluttering sounds portray the “shuddering interruption” that is overtaken later in the movement by a “mournful” cello solo.
  • “Anguished” viola glissandi (slides between two notes) play backdrop to cello outbursts marked “rough, yet with great emotion, searing” in a section of the movement marked “Not as fast, with a sense of gravity and impending doom”.

Fourth Movement | Shards, Memory

is a direct reference to my quartet’s title. Only shards are left. And memory. The memory is of things large and small, of unspeakable tragedy, but also of the song and the dance, the smile, the hopes. All things human. As we remember, in the face of death’s silence, we restore dignity to those who are gone.

  • In the score, this movement is marked “frozen in time”. It opens with sustained chords and interrupting col legno knocking sounds in both the first violin and cello lines.
  • Solos that are passed around the group provide a personal sense of narration before a hopeful theme emerges (“rich, legato”) that brings the movement to its conclusion.

Jenifer Higdon Voices | 1993
Notes by Jenifer Higdon in italics

Voices is the telling of three different images. The telling of these images is from manic and frenzied to calm and quiet, from specific to vague, and from dark to light. Note: The three images/movements of this work run attacca (without breaks).

First Movement | Blitz

This first image carries a tremendous amount of relentless, frenzied energy. It portrays a high level of intensity, always on the verge of explosion.

  • As suggested by the title, the movement (marked Presto, Agitato) opens with strong dissonance, a frenzy of running notes, and relentless energy throughout.
  • Manic glissandi are a prominent feature in this movement, as well as Bartók (or snap) pizzicati (which is when a string is plucked so forcefully that it snaps back and strikes the fingerboard), creating distinctive sounds.

Second Movement | Soft Enlacing

This second image carries a much more vague meaning, and is a calming contrast from the first movement. It may be very much like a walk through the house in the middle of the night: while the floor feels solid under foot, the rest of the world, to the eyes and ears, seems to be moving shadows. Again, the image is not meant to be clear-cut and depends upon the listener’s “viewing”.

  • This movement (marked “Ghostlike”) opens with a fluttering repetition that quickly becomes a common ostinato figure.
  • Featured throughout are haunting harmonics, other-worldly sonorities that act as a contrast to the soulful melodies that are passed around the various instruments of the quartet.

Third Movement | Grace

This final movement is the calmest and carries the most possible number of meanings: the giving of thanks at a meal; the grace seen in behavior or in a personality; the grace of movement; the bestowing of one’s self unto others; the quiet presence that exists in a being’s soul.

  • This movement emerges directly from the second movement’s conclusion. It showcases a warm and syncopated chorale melody that is linear and chant-like.
  • The movement concludes with a consonant stillness that is optimistic and hopeful, ultimately finding rest on a beautiful final chord.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet | (2007)
Notes by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich in italics

I’m the kind of composer who has a “wish list” of works I’m eager to write, but on occasion someone suggests an idea not on my “list” that I find immediately exciting and that leads me in an unexpected direction. My Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet was inspired by such a suggestion.

My ideal concept for chamber music is a conversation among equals, a conversation that is unique to the parties involved. In this instance, the alto sax brings a luscious singing quality and a certain sassy attitude to the mix, while the strings offer their amazing agility and variety of articulation, color, and phrasing. One of the great pleasures in writing (or playing or listening to) chamber music is that each player can be a virtuoso soloist one moment and a sensitive partner the next, and this “electricity” becomes an agent of musical form.

My Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet is in three movements: the first is slow (Quarter Note=66); the second is fast (Quarter Note=132); the third is both slow and fast (Quarter Note=60; 126; 120). [Note: the numbers are metronome markings, beats per minute]

First Movement

  • The movement begins with an open drone intoned by the strings and provides the backdrop for our first look at the unique sounds of a saxophone and string quartet collaboration.
  • From early on, the listener can hear the idiomatic writing commonly associated with jazz improvisation. Zwilich has an uncanny ability to fuse western art music with the jazz medium.

Second Movement

  • This movement opens with a groove played by the saxophone and lower strings in unison, which becomes a central theme of the movement.
  • Much like in a standard jazz collaboration, this movement features a lively conversation between all of the instruments – some moments as soloists, some as part of a pair, and sometimes playing all together.

Third Movement

  • This movement opens with the cello playing a repeating ostinato figure, which provides the backdrop for an expressive saxophone solo marked “poco vibrato, molto cantabile”.
  • The middle section goes up-tempo with a new groove, featuring playful offbeats and toe-tapping jazz riffs.
  • The movement concludes with a return to the open melodies, only to be quickly interrupted by one last installment of the familiar jazz riff.

Discussion Points

  • “Contemporary Voices” highlights the works of three distinguished female composers. Discuss the impact of other distinguished female artists and highlight the significance of their contributions and achievements.
  • Shulamit Ran’s String Quartet No. 3 is a celebration of the heroism and humanity of individuals like Felix Nussbaum, an example of someone who has endured great personal hardship or tragedy while persevering to create great art. Discuss other heroes in the arts who have demonstrated similar resolve and given us the gift of their artistic legacy.
  • Jennifer Higdon’s Voices is a work composed to move listeners from “Blitz” to “Grace” and from manic to calm. In an age of divisive rhetoric and national unrest, discuss other significant works of art created with the intent of bringing about peace and unity.
  • Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Quintet is a work that combines a unique combination of instruments, and a diversity of musical styles, to create a new aesthetic. Discuss other successful examples of pioneering artists who have used diversity and non-traditional elements to create a new artistic expression.

Submit Your Questions

Once you’ve listened to Contemporary Voices, submit your questions and comments for the Pacifica Quartet!
Make sure to submit your questions before the virtual meeting on December 7.