String Quartet No. 10 in E Aitolian, “in tempore belli”, Op. 27
Date of composition: 2006 (revised 2011)
Duration (approx.): 7 minutes
Instrumentation: string quartet
- I-Eerily tranquil, frozen (in the Aitolian mode)/Insidiously jovial (in the Skyrian mode)/Faintly (in the Aitolian mode)
Performed by Wyatt True and Bryce C. Caster, violins; Andrew Stiefel, viola; Alexander LaFollett, violoncello. Aasen-Hull Hall at the University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon. March 2012
My string quartets readily lend themselves to being grouped as “trilogies”. The first of each trilogy—Nos. 1, 4, 7, and 10—often involves an experiment with the large-scale form. The second—Nos. 2, 5, and 8—typically engages with experiments with other aspects, and often features multiple movements of a melancholy disposition. The third of each trilogy, Nos. 3, 6, and 9—demonstrate what I would call an intensely concentrated distillation of a “pure LaFollett aesthetic” (the Sixth being the “purest”).
The Tenth is firmly in the mold of the “formal experiment”. While the First appropriated the Baroque sonata di chiesa form (Slow-Fast-Slow-Fast), and the Fourth and Seventh are sprawling multi-movement constructs (of 6 and 8 movements, respectively), the Tenth is an experiment in the opposite direction—a larger-scale single-movement form.
There are two main sections, marked by slow and fast tempos, followed by a coda. The slow introduction features angular stacks of fifths, in artificial harmonics and moving in parallel along the main motive of the piece, beginning with utmost quietude. These stacks serve as an uneasy harmonization to erratic first violin and violoncello gestures. This suddenly gives way to faster music, with an opening salvo of canonic imitation, followed by a Near Eastern-sounding dance that devolves into something sinister. A sneering climax disintegrates into an awkward quagmire, winding down into the coda, where ideas from the introduction are reprised, eventually fading into nothingness.
The subtitle “in tempore belli” is Latin for “in time of war”. All of my quartets were composed while the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were underway. The piece is not designed to be truly programmatic (though one could potentially construe it that way), but rather, evocative of conflict that seemingly lost any sense of purpose.