German-American Modern Contemporary composer Lukas Foss [1922–2009] wrote five string quartets. Several have been recorded, but only No. 3 is still available. It was composed in 1975.
The Third Quartet, in one movement opens with a violin expressing a rising and falling glissando motif. The second violin joins in, out of sync and, as the piece unfolds, all instruments experiment with this slightly dissonant motif. Eventually they all conform to a rhythmic pattern and come together, albeit with several deviations. Just as this mood has settled, it changes. Now an abstract scene evolves; this is a fascinating feeling. There are string sound effects aplenty, and little structure, but I am drawn into its mood. A further change is introduced with loud glissando sweeps which lead into a pulsing ostinato, which is all rhythm. Slowly, subtle changes occur – this is classic minimalism. The violins introduce slight variations and the tonality changes along with a slight diminution in tempo.
The violins become more expressive and an intense passage follows. For me, the music falls just short of agitation as the violins continually thrust forward. The ostinato motif slowly succumbs to change, leading to a more assertive section by the violins. I keep waiting for the tension to break, but the composer sustains the strong momentum for a considerable time.
Eventually the ostinato ceases and sporadic violin sounds lead into another brilliant sound-space, occasionally interrupted by one repetition of the previous ostinato. We are now down to one violin which makes gentle, seemingly random statements; the music is almost inaudible at this point. Slowly the solo violin quietly makes its own rhythmic motif. The dynamics are so low at this point that it masks any development that may be occurring. By turning the volume up, I can hear two violins duelling in a mild manner. Finally the volume increases slightly with an Ives-like passage of string sounds.
Suddenly the loud ostinato returns and we are back into further intense minimalism with strong propulsion. There is some musical development from the violins but it is basically a wall of sound. The conclusion is abrupt.
Even given the above, this is not a demanding work, although it has an intense quality that I tend not to review very often.
The work is only available on a CD titled Lukas Foss: Curriculum Vitae, on the New World Records label, performed by the Columbia Quartet. Interestingly the Product Description on Amazon US quotes an un-named source – ‘it’s been characterized as a minimalist Grosse Fugue.’ This allusion to Beethoven’s famous substituted quartet finale movement is probably a little overstated but it gives one person’s impression of the quartet.
There are three other works for small ensembles on the CD. I particularly liked For Six, a work for melodic percussion instruments which evokes Terry Riley’s iconic, In C. The two other pieces feature a bandoneon.
Listenability: Slightly avante-garde – intense propulsive minimalism.