The Present Moment was commissioned by Daniel Kepl, Artistic Director of the Santa Barbara Chamber Music Festival, and premiered there in 2005 by the Seattle-based Rainier Quartet. It is a musical exploration of both memory and mindfulness. The piece consists of a single movement, about 12 minutes in length, in a language that is both tonal and melodic, marked by frequent changes of meter. There are two primary themes, plus a recurring motto theme. Both themes recur and are developed through the work, just as memories of specific, long-ago events recur and change over time. The piece is periodically interrupted by the motto theme, in the same way that time repeatedly brings us back from the irretrievable past to “the present moment.” The Altius Quartet is the fourth quartet to perform the piece. The Hollywood-based Armadillo String Quartet played the piece in 2009 as part of their 30th anniversary season, and in 2010 The Present Moment was performed by the artists-in-residence quartet at the Beverly Hills International Music Festival. — Bruce Babcock
Reviews of The Present Moment
THE SANTA BARBARA NEWS PRESS (2005)
“featured a multitude of original ideas matched by a keen sensitivity . . . Listeners rejoiced in the perky, quirky spirit of this superbly crafted piece."
THE SANTA BARBARA INDEPENDENT (2005)
“Babcock has a unique and very pleasant voice.”
The exquisite, rich sonorities and the puzzle-solving satisfaction of writing for four-part instrumentation were what inspired me to write a string quartet. It started out as an assignment to myself to 'remain on the subject' for each movement and not fly off in whimsical directions as I tend to do. As I wrote, the strings seemed to find their own way. For me, a large part of composing is simply writing, listening, and rewriting. When music emerges from that, it feels like magic. Having the musicianship and expertise of a quartet like Altius take the notes that I have written and bring them to life is magical in itself. The title, Rose Moon, is partly named for my mother, Rose, and also for the flower, because the music evokes something opening and blooming. There is also a feeling of elevation in the piece, and a shimmering, rose-hued moon encompasses that.
— Nora Morrow
Three Fantasies on African American Songs: I have been interested in mixing cultural aesthetics and musical styles for all of my life. Gunther Schuller coined the term “third stream” to describe the intertwining of American jazz with the Western European musical traditions. Of course there are so many branches to the trees of both African American music and the European traditions, that Schuller’s term can only have a very general meaning. Still, the “third stream” description does fit my Three Fantasies. In these three movements I combine different materials, styles, and developmental methods, mixing traditions freely, as I attempt to create a specifically American new music..
To me the string quartet represents the epitome of the Western European classical music tradition, so there is something slightly rebellious, even cheeky, about writing
seriously bluesy, groovy music for this idiom. Yet the concept is so very American. As contemporary music goes, this is very accessible and entertaining stuff. I don’t mean to intimate that the music of Three Fantasies is light or devoid of deeper meaning. I mean that, like all good classical music, which is well-made and full of detail, this music moves and delights as it uplifts the listener. At least that is what I hope to achieve here.
The first movement is based on the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” composed in the 1860s by Wallis Willis, a Choctaw freedman, and made famous shortly thereafter by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. I alternate between tonal statements of the theme and more abstract restatements. In the middle of the movement, the tempo quickens and a freely brilliant, albeit hushed toccata brings the movement to a close.
Movement Two is based on a recording made by Alan Lomax in 1948 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm in Sunflower County MS.) In this recording one hears the women’s detail striking axes together in a slow grooving tempo, as the women sing a two phrase work song, endlessly repeating. My musical presentation begins and ends with the players tapping their instruments in imitation of the axes. The two-phrase theme follows and is repeated again and again, becoming more and more abstracted until it dissolves into nothing but the sound of the axes hitting, fading.
The third movement, based on the southern U.S. children’s song, “Shortening Bread,” is a full out, brilliant toccata and it is meant to be freewheeling, virtuosic fun. For decades I have improvised a version of “Shortening Bread” in piano concerts. This string quartet version is a kind of notated improvisation.
— Gary Smart
This short work for string quartet was written as a speedwriting exercise at the Charlotte New Music Festival in 2015, and premiered there by the Beo Quartet of Pittsburgh. The title comes from the coincidence that the main melody shares a rhythmic pattern with Richard Rodgers’ "Surrey With the Fringe On Top" from the musical Oklahoma!. The assignment from Charlotte included the request to use one of three North Carolina folk songs. So I had the cello barge in toward the end, singing "Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley," as if drunk. It’s intended to be fun for both the players and the audience, with no claim to profundity.
— Jonathan Newmark
The String Quartet is a tradition concerned with the relationship between the individual and the group, and as such lays a claim to politics and philosophy. My specific concerns in this miniature are the construction and reproduction of character and contemporary perceptions of time and progress.
With regard to the first, I am interested in exploring how basic parameters work to form individuality and its phantasmagoria, and how this can then be transferred between individuals through reinterpretation of identity in selective memory, creative storytelling, and audacious re-invention. This piece achieves such definition through rhythmic ratios, intervallic characterisation, irrational groupings, and instrumental technique; like (as I imagine it) a cipher-kaleidoscope, these elements are constantly shifting through different alignments with one another and across various combinations of the quartet. It is hoped that this approximates selfhood as a trans-subjective effect, one which emerges at the intersections of, say, communication and love. Through this, the work celebrates the quixotic beauty of a social and performative subjectivity which, in its very creative disingenuousness, has become so valuable in a culture which demands a dull, earnest ‘authenticity’ in everything.
It’s important to question the historical significance of that desire: our demand for real music, real feelings, real people, real-life stories, realistic effects, honesty, meaning — in a culture that is anything but. It seems to me that this is, at best, a genuine desire for something entirely lacking in our society, and at worst an elaborate misdirection from its constructed, all-encompassing control. A desire for reality is a desire for things as they are. Stable, relatable, satisfying. This is precisely where an autonomous, unreal art asserts its political relevance — in the material, transformative power of imagination. The fact remains that, just like a String Quartet, this society — with all of its hunger, horror, and apocalyptic laissez-faire — is nothing more than something we dreamed up between us. It can be remade. But doing so requires a pretty incredible imaginative leap on our parts, and it is this concern that influenced the structure of the piece: an attempt to balance immanence and logic with a sense of the unexpected, the contingent, the always ever-possible. Both absolutely necessary, yet seemingly mutually exclusive.
The piece therefore attempts a formal structure which balances the opposing poles of chaotic, nonlinear juxtaposition and logical, linear, dance-like drive; it attempts to find temporality in the spatialization of contemporary music culture — that stretches from Stravinsky to Hollywood. Thus, the piece organizes opposing sections of its different characters, arranged further into verses and their ritornellos (albeit in an unstable, developmental relationship), and ultimately into two contrasting panels which form the basic idea of the work.
Music is an art that can reconcile such spatial notions with time, outside the limits of language and reason: in doing so, it imagines new progressive logics and ways of being. By balancing identity with its dissolution and temporal direction with its spatialization, I hope this miniature achieves some small part of that.
The impulse for my music is often programmatic, prompted by images, experiences, or memories. Each of my Three Pieces for String Quartet is composed instead from purely musical ideas whose logic plays out differently in each movement.
The string quartet is an ensemble especially well-suited to quick exchanges and playful interactions. Short motives and gestures in the first piece are tossed among the players in a lively musical conversation.
The second piece forms a lyrical contrast with long, plaintive, molto espressivo melodic lines sung by the viola. The piece builds to a tense climax and concludes very quietly with the harmonic and rhythmic ostinato figure that accompanied the melody throughout.
The playful third piece presents the strongest contrasts of tempo, texture, and dynamics. Scattered across the ensemble, scrappy musical lines are atomized into musical units of only two or three notes, using the tightest interval — a minor second — almost exclusively.
Three Pieces for String Quartet was awarded the Best of Category Prize for Chamber Music in the 1983 International Delius Competition at Jacksonville University.
— Janice Macaulay
Picasso’s Flight for String Quartet is about the composer’s family’s African Grey parrot, Picasso, who sits in his cage and dreams about flying. The African Grey is one of the most beautiful and intelligent of all parrots but it has its problems. It’s not a good flyer! It is somewhat awkward and unbalanced in flight, yet it attempts and struggles to be a good flyer. He does all these amazing jumps, turns, and balances in his cage, but when he is left out all he can do is basically flap his wings and glide to the floor. Back in his cage, you can see that he is already thinking about getting out and what he’d like to do the next time. You can almost sense that this is the bird’s dream to be soaring in the clouds, but of course that never happens. The sound effects in the strings give the illusion of wings fluttering.
Phelps "Dean" Witter
My Fourth String Quartet was written in 2014 in San Francisco CA on a #45 bus while going down to my store on Market Street. There was no special occasion – I just enjoy writing music! The piece is in a standard classical three-movement form, although the first movement is not as “standard” as one might expect.
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