American composer George Perle [1915-2009] wrote eight string quartets. He was also a prominent music theorist with a particular interest in The Second Viennese School – Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, conducting numerous analyses of their works and adapting their serial techniques to his own personal style. These issues are covered in a fine article on Wikipedia.
String Quartet No. 8, titled Windows Of Order is in one movement and is a far-ranging work. It was written in 1988.
The quartet opens in a very laconic fashion, both harmonically and rhythmically. The energy soon rises, however, and notes and phrases are flung about with gay abandon. A smoother passage calms the mood temporarily, and then we return to the entropy. After a time, the mood is calm again and there is a lot of space in the piece. Perle’s use of his personal techniques is characterised by scurrying passages followed by laments. This is very modern music, sometimes evoking Elliott Carter; however he does descend into calm atonal passages quite often.
A stasis comes over the work, and the ensemble probe gently, with deep, abstract feeling. This is a wonderful soundscape, filled with harmonic twists and turns. Slowly, the music moves forward, without any hint of a tempo. The sparsity really works for me, it’s almost meditative. All of the instruments add their presence to this state of tonal ambiguity. It seems to have become even more static, with very little development of any kind.
Now we have a flurry of violins, and the original scurrying feeling returns. Things are very rhythmically dense. The cello is wonderful here, as it navigates its way through the slight tension. The violins are positively racing, but the ensemble does not engage with them. A peace returns, but is driven back by some spiking interjections from the violins. Brief sections alternate here, the music won’t be tied down. Very expansive violin phrases occur and the work finishes on the highest note in the piece. Finito.
This review seems short to me, but each of the sections described in a few words or sentences, last for some minutes. The work is more like a painting, it is that abstract.
Two other string quartets are on the review CD, Nos. 2 and 5. You can hear the progression of the composer’s style. No. 2 has a wonderful adagio movement. There is also a stand-alone 12-minute masterpiece simply titled Molto Adagio. This magnificent piece sustains a melancholy mood for its duration. Violin lines drift in and out, but there is never any sense of a tempo.
As to availability, the CD, Perle: The String Quartets [Molto Adagio] on Bridge Records label, performed by Daedalus Quartet can be obtained from Amazon US and UK. This CD is also on Spotify and the complete Windows of Order is on YouTube, and earsense.
Listenability: A fine example of Contemporary progression.