‘Similar Motion” - Works for String Quartet by Philip Glass, Arthur Kampela, and Claude Debussy / Momenta Quartet


The Momenta Quartet, an ensemble in residence at Temple University in Philadelphia, specializes in music written by living composers. They have also received great acclaim for performances they have given of music written by composers of past generations and centuries. This beautifully engineered recording represents their debut for Albany Records, an acclaimed American label with a similarly vital role in the promulgation of new American music.

The CD takes its title from Philip Glass's 1969 composition "Music in Similar Motion," which begins their program. I would call this piece an example of minimalism in its most perfect form. "Music in Similar Motion" has 34 numbered melodic fragments, which are repeated as many times as the musicians decide to repeat them. Sometimes the fragments are played in unison, and sometimes they are played at parallel intervals of fourths, fifths, and octaves (perfect intervals). The five musicians (the instrumentation of the piece is flexible, so an additional violinist has joined the Momenta Quartet for this recording) play absolutely evenly, and in perfect rhythm. They continue doing so, without a break, for nearly 15 minutes. It takes extraordinary concentration to play repetitive material cleanly and evenly for any length of time, particularly if it induces a trance-like state in the people who are playing. Anyone who loves minimalist music should hear this recording.

Milton Babbitt was a self-proclaimed "maximalist" in a musical world where minimalism was growing increasingly popular. I would put Arthur Kampela (born in 1960) in Babbitt's "maximalist" category. In many ways his 1998 composition "Uma Faca Só Lâmina" ("A Knife All Blade") is exactly the opposite of the Glass piece. Kampela calls for a great variety of "extended techniques" from the string quartet, but he asks the musicians to go far beyond what might be called the standard repertoire of noises that can be made with wood, strings, and hair. The piece has three pages of specific performance notes, and notation in the score asking, for example, to "hit the wood below the neck with the little finger of the left hand while doing a left hand pizz." Kampela seems to ask the musicians to do everything possible with their instruments except to play with a conventional sound (he also asks them to vocalize, using popping consonants and hisses) offering a virtual lexicon of novel musical gestures and textures.

One would imagine that music like this would be chaotic and hard to understand, but the playing is so disciplined and so exciting that the huge range of textures and strange expressions fall readily on the ears and stimulate the imagination. I am extremely impressed by the precision of these musicians. That precision creates an unusual kind of excitement that keeps the listener engaged even when it is not possible to follow the music's organization.

The intended audience for this recording would be people interested in avant-garde music and/or minimalist music. People interested in the musical innovations of the later 20th and 21st centuries often fail to recognize the forward-thinking musicianship of Debussy, easily dismissing his orchestral music as romantic, pretty, or rhapsodic; the kind of thing that someone would use for background music in a nature documentary on television. Obliterating this mindset is precisely why I am delighted that the Momenta Quartet added the 1893 String Quartet by Claude Debussy to this program.

Debussy was a true musical visionary. This Quartet, which is organized in traditional forms, uses ostinato to such a large degree that it would certainly appeal to listeners who love minimalist music. The members of the Momenta Quartet, who play their Debussy with emotional economy and exquisite taste, make the connection between the Glass and the Debussy abundantly clear. The textures that Debussy calls for (without the need for performance notes) are always surprising, and though they are made using conventional techniques, they sound "new."

Momenta Quartet performs Stefan Wolpe: String Quartet (1969)