Music Monday: Dillon: The Infinite Sphere

Despite the historical prominence of the genre, I don't really listen to a lot of string quartets. It's not hard to find reasons why: I'm a wind player, so I can't exactly perform in one (nor can the people I know from sitting next to in most ensembles . . . ), most of my exploratory listening is in times and repertoires rather more recent than the core of the quartet repertoire, and the music theory courses I took tended to be centered more around art songs and piano sonatas. It will come as no surprise, then, that the ones I do know tend to be rather off the beaten path. 

If you're willing to hare off into the compositional thickets, tho, the results are well worth it, and so today we present a work by the American composer Lawrence Dillon. Dillon (born 3 July, 1959), the youngest of eight children, was raised by a widowed mother in Summit, New Jersey, and lost half of his hearing in a nasty bout with chicken pox. Undeterred by this, he began piano lessons at age seven and was soon writing a piece a week. He ultimately wound up studying with Vincent Persichetti (and attending classes with any number of other mid-century luminaries, including Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions) at Juilliard, and was the youngest person ever to receive a doctorate from that institution upon his graduation in 1985. He currently the Composer in Residence at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

Like many composers living after the common practice period, Dillon is deeply interested in traditional musical forms, and in updating or bringing them forward into the present musical moment. As a manifestation of that interest, he recently concluded a fourteen-year project to write six string quartets, each exploring a single classical form, the Invisible Cities string quartet cycle. (I don't pretend to fully understand the inspiration for the title, but you can read a bit more about it on the page for it at his website.) Today we're looking at the fourth in this cycle, The Invisible Sphere, which explores the forms of rondos and rounds. The title comes from a quote by Blaise Pascal, who likened the majesty of nature to "an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere", and the quartet seems to capture something of the breathtaking order and dizzying chaos that both abound in the natural world.

Light, dancing rhythms launch the lengthy first movement, wisps of melody floating over a vigorous sea. Soon, the mood sours and the ensemble comes together to play slippery, stabbing chords, but this, in turn, soon gives way to an enthusiastic rustic dance, one that will return as a rondo-esque refrain thruout the work. There is a tense central section where the violins rise gradually but insistently above the fray, and the return of the dance can't quite set the mood to rights. After a cyclic bouncing of a short motive around the ensemble, the energy peters out, paving the way for a curiously inert fugue, each of the notes sounding equally unimportant and tossed off.

Only a few bars later, this gives way to a furious scratching, which quickly evaporates into the faintest breaths of high whistlings and sighs. Slowly, this develops into a reserved, but hauntingly intimate, portrait of aching loss, in quiet search of transcendence. It doesn't find it, but it does, at least, find an escape back to faster, lighter music, however threatened by ominous trills bubbling up from below. This caprice can't quite hold on to its good cheer, and soon finds itself distorted and sliding up and down the scale, like a loose door flapping in a gale. Eventually, the strain is too much, and the music dissolves into a mess of running lines before an abrupt coda closes the movement out.

Nocturnal, etherial tremblings begin the second movement, "Devotion". The mood is hushed, reverent, with only the slightest breath to disturb the peace. But it is not to last. Stark rhythmic fragments unsettle the hush, breaking into a grandly elaborated instance of the earlier rustic dance. Even tho there's a strong rhythmic profile here, the music can hardly cling together, and it feels at every moment in danger of going off the rails. A return to the hushed opening ensues, but the mood feels more pensive, and it quickly breaks back into the dance. The texture is thick and heady, often sounding like the result of many more than four instruments. Another pensive, lyrical interlude follows, with dance rhythms always flickering on the horizon. They have trouble breaking thru, but eventually they do, congealing into a propulsive accompaniment for the rhapsodic melody. This abruptly breaks off, sending the instruments scurrying around in a frantic rush to the finish, the piece ending with a thunk and an echo, one  last mysterious glimpse at the infinite sphere.