ROBERT ERICKSON – Contemporary Quartets – Corfu and SQ No. 2

Robert Erickson [1917-1997] was an American composer who wrote four string quartets. Two are numbered, 1 and 2. Two are named, Corfu and Solstice. No. 2 and both of the named works are in one movement. Have you got all that? I am going to discuss SQ No. 1 and Corfu.

No. 1 is in three movements and opens with a sprightly abstract feeling; notes seem to fly about the room. There is no obvious melody, the two violins seem to just converse. After a time there is a pause and the music is stripped back to one violin, before the cello joins in and we are back to the opening mood. It is intangible but pleasing. The intensity rises as it progresses and there is even some harmony to be found. Near the ending, the music becomes a little richer and then goes out with a flourish. I wouldn’t call it memorable but that’s because very little gets repeated; it’s just a piece of mild abstraction. I like it!

The next movement begins with a longing solo violin melody, soon to be joined by another violin. Again, there doesn’t seem to be any firm relationship between the two instruments. The cello eventually enters, then the viola and we have another piece of abstraction. The cello rumbles about as if on the sea bottom and violins swim above. This is much slower than the first movement but inhabits a similar soundscape. Winding up, the violins are left to bring about a faded conclusion. Very interesting.

The final movement begins with an up-tempo violin. As before, the other instruments wander in, seemingly at random. A connection does seem to develop between the two violins here and they occupy the same register. The mood now changes and the tempo has gone; this section is quite poignant as the two violins exchange slow melodies. The entrance of the cello slows the tempo for a time but normal service is resumed as the violins parry. I think the word here is entropy, there is no apparent structure. The ending comes with the two violins gradually receding into the distance.

This work is nonrepresentational and definitely not program music. I am drawn to mild abstraction and I like it a lot.

I shall now consider Corfu, which as I mentioned previously, is in one movement. The opening is one dissonant chord which fades out fairly quickly and then a violin plays with the three notes of a major chord; not normally enough for a memorable melody, but it works. A second violin enters and there is a hint of microtones in the playing. A brief pause ensues before a sustained cello introduces a very simple melody in the violin. Now the cello sustains and there are long notes from the violins which do not really define a melody. This passage gradually gains intensity and a melody starts to appear. A violin motif appears in the high register; now the two violins go it alone in harmony. Sustained violin notes herald a cello melody. The cello is prominent here, with an occasional use of microtones. A violin returns for a sweeping passage as it constantly changes register; it becomes very shrill and uses harmonics for effect.

Suddenly a loud chord is featured and the violins introduce further microtonal melodies. They duet for a time until the cello enters in support; the shrill notes return. Again we have a poignant passage. There is a drone present which leads to a modal feeling and there is a degree of entropy as the violins wander through the scales. A solo violin leads into a sustained microtonal phrase. If it sounds bleak, it probably is.

The first violin now ventures into shrill territory with subtle harmonics from the second violin. The cello returns and anchors the mood for a time. Then it begins to assert itself until the violins take control again. The sparsity of this music is very rewarding; it leaves time for contemplation. As the end draws near, the mood is interrupted by a brief, slightly dissonant chord. The last minute features the two violins working their way to a consonant conclusion.

Whilst mildly abstract, this piece is essentially meditative. Again, I like it. When I first heard this music about six months ago, I didn’t get it but it feels so right now. Regarding the other two pieces, Solstice is again meditative and SQ No. 2 more abstract. Apart from SQ No. 1 all of the pieces are quite long.

This music is nominally Modern but it doesn’t contain the negative traits that have been associated with this genre in the past. I believe that Modern died about twenty years ago when it got so depressing and dissonant that it withered on the vine. Good riddance. We are now in an era where, unlike 200 years ago, not everybody writes in the same style. In fact I don’t believe there is a common 21st century style. Vive La Différence!

These quartets come on a 2-CD set entitled Robert Erickson – The Complete String Quartets on the New World Records label, by the Del Sol Quartet. It is quite pricey on Amazon UK, much cheaper on Amazon US.

The set is on Spotify and all of the works can be heard on YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Very listenable, but quite unique stylistically in the sound world that it inhabits. It ticks all of my boxes.


2 thoughts on “ROBERT ERICKSON – Contemporary Quartets – Corfu and SQ No. 2”

  1. I’m glad I got a response. I knew I couldn’t find the words to get it right. I was just trying to express something that’s deep inside me.

    I have folder of 250 ‘rejected’ string quartet composers, Lachenmann is in there! But I could sum it up by quoting most of the Arditti Quartet catalogue.

    I love a lot of modern quartets, and am heavily into atonality and abstraction, especially when it takes me to those special places. I would have to write an essay on the sort of SQs I don’t like but they seem to follow a formula – extremely quiet sections, thundering crescendos, noise and a lot more …

    BTW, I love the Erickson, it’s rather mild.


  2. I have the Erickson set and really like it. I think the first quartet sounds very neoclassical, and reminds me of Shostakovich without the maudlin bombast.

    I have to admit, I don’t quite agree with you about the “depressing and dissonant” modern music. This is a sore spot with me, because my wife calls any modern/chromatic/atonal/twelve-tone piece “mad slasher music” to my constant dismay. A lot of the music you review here, the Erickson included, employs dissonance to some extent or other. I find modern music alluring, charming and playful much more often than I find it depressing or academic.

    That being said, there’s a lot of modern music that I don’t like. Speaking of string quartets, I’ve tried to listen to Lachenmann’s vaunted “Gran Torso” many times and just find it irritating. I’ve heard quartets where the players hardly ever bow the strings, they’re so busy plucking them or slapping them with the bow. A little of that goes a long way with me.

    What modern composers specifically annoy you?

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