American early Modern composer James Willey [born 1939] has written at least eight string quartets. Most of these works have no composer markings, but if they do, they are mostly written as slow and fast and with varying degrees, possibly using the word very. I find this approach to be virtually useless in practice and meaningless to players, and will ignore it. I am going to discuss the Second Quartet, from 1979.
The work commences with a shrill solo violin melody, soon to be joined by a second, harmonised line, before the cello and viola enter. This leads to a section where the music is stretched tight until a solo pizzicato cello muses. An angular feeling with no obvious harmonic background makes for interesting listening. More pizzicato further disturbs the mood, and for me, evokes early Schoenberg. The violin sweeps through an atonal melody and the ensemble break into tempo, with the tonality completely breaking down. The tension rises before drifting into an extended solo cello passage. The return of the violins is distracted by the cello, this time played arco. A plaintive violin now drifts over a sustained ensemble chord to end.
The next movement opens with a rustic, folk-like melody, and a strangely abstract accompaniment. There is a tempo, but it breaks down and a chaos unfolds. With pizzicato cello strong, the music edges forward and the chaos is relentless. A series of harmonised stabs lead to a finish.
The third movement begins in a slow and low manner. Atonal harmonies complement a lonely violin line. A change in mood is sparse and fascinating, with much dissonance – what a wonderful soundscape. Occasionally the cello drifts over this mood, making it all the more abstract. Pizzicato is the order of the day. A series of harmonised strokes from a violin sustain the complexity which subsides, leading into a false ending. The real end is gentle, sustained and harmonised.
The final movement has a strong tempo, which fights against the abstraction of the ensemble. Another false ending consists of a strong chord. There is a rhythm here, I just can’t count it. Another short pause leads back into a poignant passage, rich in atonal harmony, and solo violin sounds, which become very intense. The work concludes on a sudden, sharp chord.
This is tremendous Modern music and is typical of the style of the other quartets. I find them all to be fascinating in their tonal and rhythmic uncertainty.
The review CD, Willey: String Quartets Nos. 1, 2 & 6 is performed by the Esterhazy Quartet and released on the Composers Recordings (CRI) label. There are two further volumes in this set, which can usually be found on Amazon US and UK.
Listenability: Moderately confronting, but that’s how I like it sometimes.