String Quartet No. 1 – II. Tango a la Peachy

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


The structure for the second movement is somewhat programmatic. This is a bit tough for me to admit, since I’m not a fan of music that tells a story. “Now Brian”, I hear you cry, “how can you say that? This entire blog is about music and theater and how you love combining both.” Well, kinda. But I find programmatic music to be, I dunno, utterly ridiculous.

It’s one thing for music to support a story that’s simultaneously being presented in another medium such as ballet or theater, but in isolation, music is inherently abstract and can’t represent anything (with the exception of flutes representing bird songs and drums representing the military and other such gimmicks). It can’t contain a story within itself, other than purely abstract musical stories, (eg. the story of the leading tone wanting to move to the tonic or a minor key wanting to move to the relative major). A piece of concert music should make sense within itself, its structure should set up musical expectations and the satisfaction or confounding of these expectations is what strings the listener along. Some sort of external narrative that pushes the action along seems like a crutch for both the composer and listener (as well as program note authors around the world).

Hmm…after writing that, it’s really hard for me to own up to it, but yeah. I used that crutch to build a structure. Nothing as specific as a measure for measure mapping of music to action, but the general shape and direction of the music has a “story” behind it.  However, it is my fervent hope that I’ve included enough inherently musical devices that the movement would hold up on its own without the listener knowing anything about that narrative.

SPOILER ALERT!  (if only more chamber works came with spoiler alerts) Tango a la Peachy is about a lonely individual (let’s call him/her “Peachy”) trying to fill an internal void with an ill advised relationship. It follows the progression of that relationship from its initial stages to increasingly more agitated sections, until an eventual collapse into chaos followed by more loneliness.

0:00-0:07 The central musical idea was that the movement would start as if the needle dropped right at the climax of the piece.  (For those of you born after 1980, I’m talking about this kind of needle.) Then the bulk of the piece would be about reintroducing the elements of this (pre)climactic measure until we reach that measure again, revealing that this is a cycle of behavior and not an isolated incident.

I really liked the idea of a dense, polyrhythmic, dissonant measure that would contain many of the musical ideas that would follow in the movement simultaneously. Sort of like musical DNA. It was an exercise in reverse composition.  First I wrote the measure, then I had to deconstruct the elements in that measure and then construct the rest of the movement using those elements.


There are four ideas presented on top of each other. The first violin plays a skittery arpeggio figure in the upper register while the cello accompanies it with a syncopated figure anchored by a double stopped fifth at the bottom.  The viola plays a repeating sixteenth note figure and the second viola struggles with a disorienting layer of five against four. All of these ideas served as the genesis for much of the music that follows.  Ummm…with the exception of the sixteenth notes, I don’t think I consciously used them anywhere.  I may be able to look at those melodic intervals and make a case for them showing up in other places, but between you and me, that would be dumb luck.

0:07-2:00 This flurry stops as soon as it starts and in its place we’re left in a mournful desolate landscape. The cello sustains a Db while the second violin hovers around that same note, occasionally accenting the notes directly above and below, as if trying to break free from the cello’s grasp, causing brief flashes of dissonance with each attempt.  Framing this struggle are a progression of disconnected chords intoned by the viola and first violin, like a choir of the initiated, already resigned to their lonely fate.

[audio:|titles=Resigned Choir]

2:00-2:25 As the second violin continues it’s attempts to escape the Db, the cello restates it more insistently, building to a tremolo that turns into an impassioned glissando. A knotty, introverted tone cluster starts to emerge from the depths (hey…are those the same notes as the sixteenth note line in the first measure? Eh…maybe not). Just as this sonority threatens to consume the quartet there’s an intense pizzicato that suddenly resolves into a surprisingly pleasant diversion, a languid tango.

2:25-3:17: Our protagonist has escaped their existential angst by focusing their attentions on someone else.  The second violinist again provides the solo voice playing seductively in the lower register of the instrument while accompanied by halting pizzicati in the cello. But there are still hints of malaise as the first violin creeps in a quintuplet and the flurry of activity in the opening measure shows up very briefly, a harbinger of things to come.


3:17-4:26 But our dancers are undaunted by the lapse and take up again, first with the violin supported in close harmony by the viola as the first violin comments with plucked notes on top.   Then a countermelody is introduced, and soon the voices all come together. For a brief few measures, it seems like we’ve found peace as a series of relaxed Debussyan chords show no sign of tension ahead.  But it’s short lived, for the triplet rhythm of the tango starts inhabiting the chords, growing more and more insistent. It builds to another echo of the first measure and when it stops we’re in a much more agitated place.

[audio:|titles=Debussy bits]

4:16-5:09 The second violin is  playing nervous sixteenth notes against the insistent rooted cello (this part reminds of of the dance of the ancestors in Stravinsky’s Rite).  The first violin and viola start playing chords reminiscent of the resigned choir in the desolate opening, but transformed into a Bartok like rhythm.


Ummm… Since composing it, I realized that the shape of this gesture is much more similar to the middle of the first movement of  Bartok’s first piano concerto than I’d have liked. Take a listen…


Hmmm. Ya. Pretty similar.

This figure repeats growing in intensity and escalating in pitch until at its peak the cello and first violin trade off the Bartok rhythm in similar registers while the viola introduces the skittery arpeggios that the violin plays in the first measure as an accompaniment.

5:09-6:03 We burst into an angry pesante, the second violin and viola play the tango theme in unison but this time it’s verging on obsessive, violent.  The cello is rooting the activity with syncopated double stopped fifths from the first measure of piece while the first violin accompanies with a flurry of the skittery arpeggios of that same measure.


The droning exchange between the violin and cello owes a lot to Bartok’s 4th string quartet, although he goes a lot farther with the dissonance in those chords than I do…


Just as things are spiraling out of control there’s a sudden glimpse of fresh air for just a few beats as the cello and violin drop out and the tango tries to be heard in the gaps between the cacophony. But it’s no use, the manic layers of activity from the opening have taken hold, and the doomed tango theme is all but unrecognizable, hidden deep within the furious activity around it. The tension builds to a measure which (hopefully) is recognizable as being very closely related to the first measure of the piece.


6:03-7:27 Then, like before, the flurry evaporates, leaving us in that all to familiar desolate place. Again the second violin is rooted to the Db of the cello, this time bitterly holding on to the dissonances of its attempted escapes. The choir of the resigned is also subtly transformed, it has adopted the Bartok rhythm (at a much slower tempo) instead of the disjointed quarter notes.

[audio:|titles=Resigned Bartok]

In the last measures, the violin stubbornly refuses to submit to the Db of the cello, willfully sustaining a tense minor second despite the choruses attempts to resolve. And the resentful minor second fades away into silence…