American composer Paul Cooper [1926-1996] wrote six string quartets between 1952 and 1977.
Only Nos. 5 and 6 are available on CD. As I am fond of slow movements, and it consists of four slow movements, I shall discuss No. 5. This quartet is titled Umbrae which means ‘A region of complete shadow resulting from total obstruction of light’ according to my online dictionary.
The first movement begins with a drone; a sustained chord with the cello being prominent. A melody begins to form but it is unclear. The drone fades away leaving the four instruments to exchange dialogue with each other; it is mildly chaotic. The drone returns and then a loud chord initiates a faded ending. This may not sound like much, but it is quite beguiling.
There seems to be a modern technique (I’ve encountered it before), where all of the instruments seem to busily play, independently of each other. It is chaotic, but if not played too loudly, it does establish a musical substance. I expect there is more to come.
Movement two is very slow. The aforementioned technique comes into play again but at this tempo, makes for a different effect. Atonal chords begin to form and it briefly drops into a rhythm before resuming the drone with the violins playing sweeping melodies. There are microtones being used here so the dissonance level is quite high. After a time, a viola ostinato underpins the violins. Again there seems to be no connection between the instruments, but it works.! Several loud chords lead back into a tempo which fades to a solo violin hovering in the high register. The music descends into an almost random passage before fading out.
There is not much change of mood in these first two movements, but they still take me to an interesting, introverted, musical space.
The third movement begins with some string instrument sound effects, mostly plucked. It’s a very gentle pizzicato. After some sweet melodies, the plucking returns for a while. Then it’s back into the music. This contrast continues, plucked, then bowed, and back again. Eventually the two moods merge and there is a peaceful ending.
The final movement begins with one violin note played for about 30 seconds before the other instruments make their entry. Their atonality soon overwhelms the violin. The music stops and then moves through some dissonant chords before settling on a sustained chord with violin melody. This appears to be a recapitulation of the first movement opening. A motif develops and the violin soars into the high register again, way above the ensemble, reminiscent of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil. The violin ceases and it is all over.
I think that this piece could have done with a bit more music. The movements are not long and it feels that the composer missed an opportunity even to just sustain some sections. That would have made it all the more powerful. There is some fine here.
I may discuss No. 6, which is an epic work, at a later date.
This work is currently available on Amazon US as a CD. Titled Cooper: Chamber Works, String Quartet No. 5 & 6 on Composers Recordings, performed by the Shepherd Quartet – it also contains a number of shorter works. Amazon UK has it as an MP3 download.
Listenability: Intriguing, slightly academic.