ELLIOTT MCKINLEY – String Quartet No. 3

American Contemporary composer Elliott Miles McKinley [born 1969] has written at least seven string quartets. I have selected the composer’s Third Quartet for discussion as it contains two slow movements, which is where I like to go.

The work, in four movements, commences with a slow movement, which is a little unusual. The first sound we hear is a melodic line by the cello. It carries on unaccompanied for some time. A pause brings the other instruments into play as they harmonise the cello line. They are all in their low registers, leading to a feeling of great depth. The cello still leads while the violins play random melodic phrases in the background. Now we are back to solo cello, until several pizzicato interjections ensue. The cello persists to the end, which features two pizzicato interjections and some throwaway violin phrases.

The next movement begins with an energetic solo violin, at tempo, which is soon joined by pizzicato statements from the ensemble. The violin persists in its melodic endeavours, interrupted only by some deep, cello-driven blocks of musical statements. There is also plenty of pizzicato here; it forms a call and response section with the ensemble. Now the pizzicato is the melody and the ensemble reverts to answering flourishes. The pizzicato violin moves into a slightly burlesque mood and now the ensemble takes over again. Harmonised violin lines lead into a section of strong, rhythmic thrusts. A return to the pizzicato brings all manner of sound effects and a shimmering violin concludes.

The third movement is based around a simple violin melodic fragment that is sustained throughout the entirety of this movement. There are many responses to it, some of them quite beautiful. The solo motif returns and develops some variations of its own. The ensemble is all around this motif and appear to be playing as they please. Sometimes, they seem to mock the thematic material, other times they come up with alluring responses; one of which leads to a conclusion.

The final movement, the longest in the work, is marked lento. A lone violin searches for a melody and settles on a sustained note which brings in the other players, to create a sustained droning sound. A pause brings a slightly dissonant section into play, but it is still mostly a drone. Dissonant sustained chords prevail, with some string sound effects. Now a charming solo violin drifts over a rhythmic motif and the ensemble joins in. This is stasis; there is no melodic development or forward movement. The solo violin picks up again and, after a time, the ensemble returns with more sustained notes and sound effects. The violin is longing now and quivering strings form a backdrop. There is a hint of melodic tension as the solo violin breaks into sound effects and furtive phrases, over a sustained background which slowly ends the work.

I don’t quite know what to make of this music. I like it, but I’m not sure why. There are very few melodies but plenty of ambient sections.

The review CD, titled Elliot Miles McKinleyString Quartets, on the MMC label, performed by the Martinu Quartet and the Stamic Quartet also contains Quartets Nos. 4 and 5. I really enjoyed No. 4, not so sure about No. 5. There is another release by the Martinu Quartet on the Navaro label which contains Nos. 4, 5 and 6. I particularly enjoyed No. 6. Both versions are available on Amazon US and UK. It’s a pity you can’t get Nos. 3, 4 and 6 on one disc – that would be perfect – maybe digital download would be the way to go.

Both of the aforementioned CDs are on Spotify and the Martinu Quartet version is on YouTube, which also features a version of String Quartet No. 7, which I haven’t heard yet. There are several late quartets on earsense.

Listenability: Strangely satisfying, also really liked No. 4 and No. 6.


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