American Contemporary composer Marc Mellits [born 1966] has written at least five string quartets. I believe that Nos. 2 to 5 have been recorded. Wikipedia tells us that ‘His music is influenced by minimalist and rock music, and has been identified with the postminimalist stylistic trend’. On that note, I’m not sure about the ‘post’ in minimalist as String Quartet No.3 is classic minimalism and there is a fair quantity to be found in the work under consideration.
The Fourth Quartet, composed in 2011and titled Prometheus, is in eight movements – many of them are rather brief.
The opening lento has a strangely synthesised sound to it, although it is performed by a physical ensemble. Light cascading phrases lead to a decelerating tempo, eventually finishing on a sustained chord. This happens to be the shortest of the movements, at just 98 seconds in length.
The next movement, marked moderato, also features that unusual string sound, particularly on ensemble chordal passages. The melodies are sparse, and the music very peaceful. Slowly the first violin rises out of the background and some melodic development is heard. The intensity gradually increases with melancholy, overlapping violin lines with perhaps a little too much repetition. Nearing the end, the music evolves into a diaphanous texture that you can almost see through. A section of held chords with a hint of quiet pizzicato tones allows for a faded ending.
The third movement opens with a minimalistic ostinato that evokes the sound of industrial machinery. Changes to the harmony introduce new motifs as the ostinato persists. The end is sudden with a chord, the tones of which resonate for some seconds.
The next movement features gently pulsating, rhythmic chords with no apparent melody, just changes of harmony. Eventually a lonely violin muses over this background until the music briefly pauses. Now the background is stronger and again features many changes in harmony, but no melody is to be heard. Another pause brings the return of a melodic violin as the ensemble continues with the chords becoming sparser, and a faded closing.
The fifth movement is again underpinned by a rhythmic ostinato as two violins express, and eventually, begin to intertwine, all the while in a very metrical manner. The violins slowly dissipate and we are left with another fadeout.
A rubato movement follows, with a pulsing pizzicato viola tone underpinning a series of violin chords wafting gently. Now melodies are heard and changes in harmony produce a measured passage that slowly moves forward. An increase in dynamics continues with a sense of repetition that seems a little laboured, to the end.
The final movement evokes the third movement with its ostinato motifs occasionally changing with the harmony – sometimes the music is quite forceful. The conclusion is a sharp stop.
My impression of this work is that it lacks definition and sometimes, music. Several times the harmonies seemed to be based on simple chord changes that could be found in popular music. I’ve already mentioned some sense of repetition. A visit to the composer’s website also indicates that often compositions are arranged for many different combinations of instruments, including Bluegrass String Band and Saxophone Quartet. The Third Quartet, titled Tapas, has been published as Concerto for String Quartet & String Orchestra.
The review CD, titled Mellits: String Quartets Nos. 3, 4 & 5, on the Evidence Records label and performed by Quatuor Debussy is available from Amazon US and UK.
Listenability: One for the Minimalists or New Agers.