American Contemporary composer Ted Moore [born 1987], to my knowledge has not written any works for a standard string quartet. He has however, composed several for string quartet augmented with other instruments. The work under discussion is designated as for string quartet and laptop computer. Normally I would shy away from such a concept but I believe that this piece, titled Gilgamesh & Enkidu contains some worthwhile chamber music. The work has six named movements and appears to be inspired by a pre-Christian Babylonian mythical tale. You can read a comprehensive article from Encyclopedia Britannica via Wikipedia. Suffice it to say, it is an epic work of early literature and this quartet plus one is an epic piece of mostly music, running to just under an hour. Not exactly Feldmanesque proportions but one of the longest quartets that I have heard. Let’s get into it.
The Fall of Enkidu – The work commences with a didgeridoo-like drone and a violin gradually appears, its probing phrases being answered by the cello. The drone persists and I now believe it to be electronic. Violin glissandos give way to a brief pizzicato interlude, followed by further glissandos. At this point, it is more about sound than music. Having said that, a passage emerges with a violin offering up a rich, harmonised violin lament, together with a wonderfully reverberating cello part. Moving forward, a fascinating passage unfolds, with poignant violin melodies. The end is a long sustained drone.
The Dark – Some electronic, distant storm-like sounds introduce this movement – they continue as violins firstly express a feeling of pathos before moving into the full ensemble in a slightly agitated passage. The music is stretched tight, with powerful, intertwining ensemble lines. A period of string sound effects leads into a solo violin part, which soon gives way to a concluding section of sound effects. This is by far the shortest movement in the work.
Lament – A brief section of cloudy electronica introduces a mournful solo violin melody, which is then harmonised by the ensemble to create a fascinating soundscape. The dynamics ebb and flow, eventually settling back into the previous quiet mood – this is terrific writing, and the violin is magnificent. Stunning harmonies unfold and a sense of drama is revealed. A further gentle passage for two harmonised violins is occasionally interrupted by ensemble thrusts, leading into a fine solo cello passage. A dramatic section follows, with all instruments displaying a level of intensity. A descending melodic phrase emerges out of this and dissolves into an abstraction with glissandos as the music mocks itself. Now sparsity prevails as the melody is deconstructed with abandon. Solo cello now comes to the forefront, with only a hint of the ensemble present for the duration of the movement. This could be music from Bach’s Cello Suites, it is very Baroque in style.
The Silence Was Deeper Than Before – More electronics introduce a sparse solo cello, which varies in intensity. It is sometimes difficult to discern the difference between the cello and the electronica at this time until the solo cello predominates, projecting a powerful sound, arco alternating with pizzicato. For me, it evokes the bass solos of Jimmy Garrison from jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s last quartet, especially the extended performances from 1966 in Japan. The cello is variously: rhythmic, probing, subtle, and sometimes orchestral. Running the full gamut of sounds available from the instrument, it is a virtuosic workout. Sometimes there can be heard a distant rumbling in the background, I take this to be electronics. The cello persists in its journey, rising high into its upper register, before descending to craft a sparse lament, as the strange background also continues intermittently. Finally it is just the cello that moves into the last notes of the movement, which has been a 13-minute fantasy for cello with only sporadic sounds for company. The style is just so different from the Bach-like nature of the cello role in the previous movement.
The River, the Flood – Gentle sounds of water bubbling, further electronica, are heard for some time – no music here … There is variation as the volume and intensity continually increase, leading to the sound of a raging torrent. Explosions appear, silencing the river. A quiet, sustained period introduces string sounds, but they are synthesised. A brief return to the torrent transforms into a sustained chord, which fades to the end. There is no ensemble playing in this movement.
Epilogue – Names and Monuments – The longest movement in the work starts as a solo cello over a mournful string background. The cello ceases and the strings continue with a sparse selection of sustained sounds. A burst of activity leads to a return of the cello as it exchanges phrases with the ensemble. Now the background is synthesised with interjections from the acoustic instruments. At times it can be difficult to discern the source of some of these sounds. The mood is quite evocative however, as gentle washes of sound create a delicate ambience. A sustained electronic background allows the violins to express long melodies in a most appealing manner before the electronic sounds completely take over. Slowly the quartet instruments enter with their distinctive acoustic tonalities being music to my ears. A repeated descending melodic motif builds in intensity as the acoustic melds with the electronic. This motif continues for a considerable time before finally allowing the cello to express over the quite sustained background, leading to a moment of bliss. A series of ensemble chordal interjections signal the beginning of the end as the didgeridoo sounds heard at the opening of the work resolve it to a peaceful conclusion.
Discounting for a moment the use of a laptop computer to provide electronic sounds, this work is highly stylised, program music. The composer seems to specialise in compositions involving synthesised, electronic sounds. For me, he has come up with a comfortable blend of sounds that sustained my interest for its entirety.
The review CD, Ted Moore: Gilgamesh & Enkidu, performed by the aptly named Enkidu String Quartet is available on Amazon US and possibly Amazon UK.
It can be heard in full on Spotify and YouTube.
Listenability: One of a kind Contemporary work – well worth a listen.