Mexican Contemporary composer Mario Lavista [born 1943] wrote six string quartets. They are so short that they all fit on to a single CD. Three are one-movement works; the other three consist of many very short movements. I am going to discuss the former, which run for a combined total time of 33 minutes. Normally, I would regard that length as approaching epic, but this composer has a liking for space. They are all named works, in Mexican, and I had trouble with translating them. Oh well.
String Quartet No. 1 is titled Diacronia and is rather short at seven minutes. It opens with an ambient atmosphere and a sustained violin backdrop. A random cello note is heard and eventually, musical statements begin to appear. I wouldn’t call them melodies; in any event they are outweighed by the random interjections from all instruments. These take the form of varying textures, sometimes the timbre is crude. The interjections can be a phrase, a rhythmic motif, or a string sound effect. The sustained tone has persisted and can still be heard in the background. For me, the interjections, which are the heart of the piece defy description. I guess I would go with static soundscape. Not your average string quartet.
String Quartet No. 2 is titled Reflejos de la Noche which I gather translates to Reflexes at Night. It opens with a sound pastiche of assembled instruments, sustaining a mood, while string sound effects emulate wild animals, possibly monkeys. The harmony and the attack of the ensemble does change, but only marginally. The animal noises persist until some melodic fragments rise to the surface. The mood is quite propulsive, with different instruments contributing to the sense of a rhythmic pattern. As the work progresses, there are more abstract melodic ideas presented. Occasionally, chordal passages are inserted. This, like the First Quartet is basically a soundscape, but definitely not of a static nature. Nearing the conclusion I sense some movement in one of the violins as it fades into nothing.
String Quartet No. 4 is titled Sinfonias. Sinfonia is an English musical term meaning small orchestra. This work opens with a throbbing cello not unlike the introduction to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. The basic sound is rather like the drone of the Indian tamboura, and brings a modal sound to the piece. Some melodies occur here, as the violins overlap with lines and phrases. This piece is on the move, albeit slowly. A repeated motif is set up and the ensemble meanders about it. The cello makes statements, both bowed and pizzicato. A sustained note brings about a change, with the first violin becoming quite assertive. The ensemble responds to this, as it does when the violin mellows. The drone is still present and things become very quiet. The cello makes further statements, sometimes using microtones. The drone now changes texture and becomes more like the rhythmic, but static nature of the Second Quartet. The dynamics recede slightly and individual voices are able to be heard clearly. A sustained note introduces an Indian Classical Music flavour, being totally bereft of harmony. Modal statements are the mood at this time. A pizzicato ostinato is briefly heard before the pizzicato becomes more melodic in nature. The cello returns, in its lower register, and makes strong assertions. Another ostinato passage ensues, and one violin fades to a close.
On the basis of these three quartets, I would class the music as strongly ambient, with little development. I also listened to the remaining three multi-movement works and found the presence of movements allowed for a lot more variety, although some of them were cut from the same cloth as the discussed quartets. Strangely, there are no angry or aggressive passages to be found here; the composer certainly had the opportunity to present some. Lavista definitely has his own unique style; I’ve not heard music like this before, which is not to say that there isn’t any out there.
The review CD is Mario Lavista – Complete String Quartets, on the Toccata Classics label, performed by Cuarto Latinoamericano. It is available on Amazon UK and US.
Listenability: It’s not difficult listening, but is clearly in a strange Modern Contemporary style.