Reviews

Minimalism: American Classics. The Bingham String Quartet at St. Leonard’s Chapel.

This weekend I dropped the club for a chapel; Peroni for a pew; subwoofers for strings; and went to see what all the fuss is about with late 20th century American Minimalism.

On Saturday evening St. Andrews was treated to a magnificent performance by The Bingham String Quartet who performed select Minimalist compositions from Steve Reich and Philip Glass as well as showcasing work from Mozart and Leoš Janáček. Originally to be staged in The Byre Theatre, the venue was changed to the stunning late-medieval setting of St. Leonard’s Chapel – providing an intimate experience for the attendees who pulled up a pew in expectation.

The concert was organised in conjunction with the St. Andrews New Music Week which returned for a second year with workshops, masterclasses and special performances in celebration.

The evening began with an interpretation of one of Mozart’s (1756 – 1795) later works “Adagio and Fugue, K.546” in C minor. Written in Vienna in 1788, the piece started life as a Fugue for two keyboards which was later transcribed for strings, with the Adagio introduction added a later date. The ominous tone of the opening Adagio, which is played at a leisurely and graceful pace, is interpolated with violent outbursts and it comes as a great relief to hear the contrapuntal composition of the Fugue with its interweaving parts and hugely chromatic scale. In fact, we hear all twelve semitones of the western scale within the first four bars of the violin part. (You learn something new every day).

After this powerful opening, and in a change of programme, the audience was treated to some true minimalism in the form of Philip Glass’s 1983 composition “Quartet No. 2” or “Company” as it’s more commonly known. Originally composed as a series of interludes for the Frederick Neuman play Company – based on the novella by Samuel Beckett – the composition’s four movements all end with a written fade-out. Each movement trades themes and continuities with the other giving a beautiful mixture of oscillating patterns, changing textures and subjugating arpeggios in minor keys. Overall the piece is decisively monochromatic and the simplistic arrangement reflects the pioneering qualities of Philip Glass that make him one of the most influential music makers of the late 20th century.

Before the interval there was time for Leoš Janáček’s (1854 – 1928) “String Quartet no. 1”. Based on Tolstoy’s 1889 novella The Kreutzer Sonata the piece follows the protagonist, Pozdnyshev, as he retells the events leading up to his killing of his wife. Composed towards the end of Janáček’s life at age 69 in a period of rabid compositional activity “String Quartet no. 1” consists of four movements: Adagio – Con moto; Con moto; Con moto – Vivo – Andante; Con moto – (Adagio) – Più mosso. With “Con moto” in Janáček’s context meaning “with life” – and indeed the sonata breathes life. There is even a musical representation of the murder of the wife illustrated with a quick up-bow, down-bow. The legato movements mirrored by moments of intense pizzicato create an intensely textured piece that holds your attention throughout.

The second-half of the programme began with a composition by the quartet’s very own Steve Bingham. Utilising techniques made famous by Steve Reich and his “Clapping Music,” Bingham uses a loop pedal to live loop a single violin phrase and that repeats continuously as “the live player gradually phases out with the recorded part one note at a time”. This creates a cacophony of phrases and cross-rhythms culminating in a grand unison as the phrases return together in the final part. With a duration of two minutes this work was an insightful and stylish introduction to the compositional techniques used by minimalists such as Reich to create their breath-taking soundscapes.

In the final part of concert The Bingham String Quartet treated the audience to an extremely unique performance of Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”. A pioneer of the use of tape recording and sampling, Reich was innovative in every sense of the word. We must remind ourselves that the story behind “Different Trains” is as important as the story the final composition tells.

“The idea for the piece came from my childhood. When I was one year old my parents separated. My mother move to Los Angeles and my father stayed in New York. Since they arranged divided custody, I travelled back and forth by train frequently between New York and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942 accompanied by my governess. While the trips were exciting and romantic at the time I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains”. These memories form the basis for the first movement entitled “America – Before the War”. With a string quartet playing repeated themes that follow the vocal samples the first part is full of energy – the movement of the train is palpable.

The vocal samples in this movement come from Reich’s governess, “then in her seventies, reminiscing about our train trips together”. Alongside this account are the stories of “a retired Pullman porter, Lawrence Davis, then in his eighties, who used to ride the lines between New York and Los Angeles”.

The second movement – Europe – During the War – tells a very different story. With the looping vocal sample “1940” opening up with sounds of air-raid sirens. In this part the samples come from collect recordings of Holocaust survivors, Rachella, Paul and Rachel – “all my age and then living in America – speaking of their experiences”. These experiences include the retelling of persecution by a Nazi-sympathiser school teacher and the train ride to a concentration camp.

The third movement – After the War – combines both recordings of the American governess and porter with the Holocaust survivors. Opening with light and flowery violin parts overlaid with the vocal sample “And the war was over” this tells the years following World War II.

The piece ends with the vocal sample:

“There was one girl, who had a beautiful voice, and they loved to listen to the singing, the Germans, and when she stopped singing they said, ‘more, more’ and they applauded”.

This performance combined the original vocal recordings of Reich with a live string quartet to create an immersive and extremely moving experience. Overall the evening provided an innovative programme of music executed in outstanding clarity by The Bingham String Quartet – this is an experience that will stay with me for a while.

The Bingham String Quartet are:

Steve Bingham and Marina Gillam – violins.

Brenda Stewart – viola.

James Halsey – cello.

You can find out more about them via their official website, here.