String Quartet No. 1 – I. On the Rails

links to other movements:
I – On the Rails
II – Tango a la Peachy
III – Off the Rails




For detailed notes about the piece (and the pieces that I ripped off was influenced by), read on…

According to the dates on my Sibelius files, I started writing this piece just before December 15, 2008.  I didn’t have much of a formal plan at the outset, I just started at the beginning and forged ahead, making up the structure as I went along.

The title “On the Rails” is a phrase that a friend of mine used to describe standing in the front row of a rock concert. For me in evokes a sense of constrained excitement, although apparently the string quartet that premiered the piece, not having access to me directly, thought it had something to do with a train.

0:00-0:24 When starting to try out ideas for the first movement, John AdamsJohn’s Book of Alleged Dances” was clearly echoing in my brain.  The opening chords of “Judah to Ocean” are closely related to the chords that open my piece, although I voice them in a lower register and use a sort of lopsided waltz rhythm.

Note that the highlighted notes are actually transpositions of the same intervals, although the harmonies are different and they’re in different registers.  See if you can hear through the rhythmic and textural differences and recognize the intervals:

First the Adams:


Now the opening of my quartet:

[audio:|titles=Opening Strains]

The similarity is a bit hidden, but it’s there.

Part of what obscures the similarity is the dominant cello line. It’s a little hard to hear anything else. I knew I was interested in a more baroque style of rhythmic figuration (in an attempt to sound more “Stravinskian”), so I chose to layer these chords over a cello motif that would fit right into a Bach Invention.

Then I borrow a technique out of mimimalism and repeat these little cells and transforming them slightly each time, adding a note here, offsetting the rhythm by a bit, letting the parts slide in and out of sync, developing the idea, hovering around an E flat tonality until we arrive at our next section

0:24-0:42 I introduce a new theme, a melody of stuttering sixteenth notes over a pulsing eighth note accompaniment. After I wrote this melody I was concerned if I could actually keep it in. It just felt straight out of one of Bartok‘s books of Hungarian folk song, which struck me as inauthentic since it wasn’t my culture. However, I came to realize that while I didn’t grow up listening to Hungarian folk song, I did grow up listening to Bartok’s uses of Hungarian folk song, (and using them while learning how to play piano), so it’s fair game.

After digging through several CDs of Bartok compositions, I finally figured out the germ of this idea. This new theme is related to a variation of the main theme in the third movement of Bartok’s piano sonata, using the same pitches! (Enharmonically at least. I use E flat and D flat, he used D sharp and C sharp.).  Here they are for comparison.

My “Hungarian” theme:


Bartok’s Hungarian theme – no quotes needed (Piano Sonata 3rd movement)


Here’s what they look like:

(when you get a chance, listen to Lang Lang’s blistering performance of the first movement of Bartok’s Piano Sonata on YouTube.  Then listen to the third movement.  Wow.)

0:42-1:01 After stating the folk song theme (around A flat) the cello moves to a D flat and sits there while the viola and first violin play some imitative counterpoint games (a canon, in the vein of “Row, Row, Row your Boat) and the second violin gets to accent things with stabby octave jumps. Originally I had the cello sitting on that D flat for this entire section (a device called a pedal point, named for the pedals of an organ), but in a lesson with David Garner, he suggested that  adding a little bit of variation to that line, occasionally moving to the notes surrounding D flat would keep the brain from tuning that line out and reminding us that the pedal is still going on.  That way the eventual resolution to G flat would feel like more of an arrival.


1:01-1:28 We return to the first ideas of the movement, the baroque cello line and lurching waltz, this time in a new key.  We immediately start the minimalism game, shifting rhythms and adding pitches (although I’m introducing material at a far greater rate than traditional minimalism).  This time I’m trying to slow things down to transition into a simpler middle section.  I use a sort of interleaving technique where one voice introduces a line in the character of the next section and then that idea starts being picked up by other instruments, and without even realizing it, you’re in a different section.

At 1:23 you can hear the second violin play the opening few notes of the theme that’s about to be featured in the next section (it’s a bit hard to recognize in the denser texture).  When I heard it recorded recently, I actually thought it was a mistake and the second violinist played her phrase too early, but no, it’s actually written like that. In retrospect this was probably due to a copy pasting artifact in my working style.  I probably removed a few of measures of the second violin part at some point and when I copied measures to fill in the gap, a copy of those notes remained in their original location.  Then I liked the way it sounded when I played it back, so what was originally an inner voice ended up being the main theme for the next section.

After you listen to the excerpt once, listen again from the beginning to see if you can pick out the violin 2 theme from the end of the excerpt in the inner voices of the beginning.


1:28-2:02 The viola eases into a swaying background figure and the violins trade off the simple (and accidental) theme while the cello interjects with a three note sighing phrase. This section feels naive and a little wistful, like we’re out in the country all of a sudden.  Things start getting a bit more complicated, even a little bitonal, as the fugal entrances start speeding up and the simple theme starts showing some sharp edges.  The inversion of this simple theme is introduced and the cello starts riffing on the original baroque rhythm adding more energy, driving us to the next section.

2:02-2:23 We move to a new key center and the simple country section turns into a jaunty little jig.  The baroque cello line returns, this time with the whole note sixteenth notes from the Hungarian folk theme stuck in.  The first violin echos these little trills while the second violin plays open fourths, which makes this section feel like an Appalachian hoedown to me. The dance starts winding down as the trill evaporates into the air and it’s time to leave the country.


2:23-2:51 The cello tries to return back to the original material, but the other parts seem reluctant to leave the idyllic world of the middle section.  The cello insists, repeating the baroque line at successively higher pitches.  My favorite part of the movement comes right at 2:38.  The inner voices are meandering around with an eighth note rhythm, when the first violin and cello plays floating quarter notes up in the stratosphere, the cello using harmonics to play very close intervals with the violin. It feels like a ballroom waltz performed midair.


2:52-3:20 We’re in the home stretch now.  The ballroom waltzers have returned to solid ground.  Roles have been exchanged, the lopsided waltz is in the cello now, this time moving up the scale, and the baroque rhythm is being handled by the middle voices.  The Hungarian folk song makes a brief appearance, handed off between the first violin and cello. Then we’re in pure Stravinsky territory for the ending (my favorite place to be), particularly in the first violin, who could probably switch to the violin part in Histoire du Soldat without anyone noticing.

Here’s an excerpt from Stravinsky’s Histoire:


And here’s the end of the movement of my quartet:


I listened to a LOT of Stravinsky growing up.

With all that noise and clamor, we’re in a good place to start the second movement with more noise and clamor…