The sixth and final movement of Peter Garland's String Quartet no. 1, "In Praise of Poor Scholars," is headed with a telling indication. "Like a simple Indian dance - elegant and eloquent," the composer writes. The movement is two and a half minutes long, falling into two sections. The initial music stops after only 50 seconds. There is a moment of silence, and then the quartet begins again, pouring out one last aching melody, and every time, it lands heavily on my mind. There are certain centers it never fails to awaken, even if I didn't know they were sleeping. Like the forceful, lonesome chiming of a carillon at dusk.
Garland heads this final section of the piece with an epigraph from artist Carolee Schneemann: "Look this outrage in the eye and put on the dancing music!"
This quartet means a great deal to me, and those two quotations speak succinctly to its unique character and power.
There is indeed such elegance and beauty in the folklike melodies that rush through the piece. Eloquence, here, comes in the guise of restraint. The piece's emotional content is narrowly circumscribed. "Look this outrage in the eye," Schneemann tell us. Somehow after twenty minutes of music the weight of the world is in that melody; it has seen things and knows sadness. But it dances.
As a composer I'm fascinated by the subtle relationships between the quartet's themes, by the flowing forms of the movements, by Garland's unusual approach to metric stress, by the trochaic phrasing of his melodies--heritage of his researches into folk music of the Southwestern United States and Mexico. Mostly, though, I just love to listen to the piece. Garland's two quartets came to me through the warm, human, deeply musical recording by Apartment House. I wish his music was heard more often in the U.S.; it's difficult to find patronage, I think, for music of this brand of subtlety. It doesn't wear its sonic expansiveness on its sleeve, nor its dramatic structuring. It belongs to no camp.
I felt compelled to write about Garland because recently I was thinking about some of my secret influences--composers and musicians whose work and example have been important for me, but whose influence I haven't shared with others. I don't seem to have many friends who share my feelings for Garland's music, but then, I wouldn't perhaps know, because I haven't asked. There's an intimacy to this music's effect on me, and I wonder if I've hesitated to share a piece like the first quartet with my friends because on some level I want to keep it for myself, am afraid my relationship with the piece might detrimentally oxidize if I expose it to the tastes and opinions of others.
For this reason, it is only with some bravery that I plug "In Praise of Poor Scholars" here. Check out the Apartment House recording. Listen to it by yourself. Listen a few times before you make any decisions about it. Like many of my most enduring influences, this piece lived in my subconscious for a long while before I realized the degree to which it had stuck with me.
Garland is also a compelling music writer of arresting conviction and aesthetic integrity. I highly recommend his book Americas. For a sample of his writing you might check out his program note for the CD release of John Luther Adams' piece for Lou Harrison.
Apropos of their recent album and the idea of secret influences, I might also mention the band Brokeback. I've had their album Field Recordings from the Cook County Water Table for over a decade, since I first became interested in Chicago post-rock, and while I didn't give it hugely many plays during that initial phase, it's aged as well as anything else in the genre, and I find myself listening to it and thinking about it fairly frequently. The sparseness and ambivalent moods of the record resonate in my own compositions of the last few years.
Back in January I was talking to Chris about "Vatic Lullaby," a piece he wrote for Grant Wallace Band. After several drafts, the final version of the piece features a virtuosic electric bass part replete with soft, beautiful harmonics. When I asked about the bass writing, Chris asked if I listened to Brokeback. So there you go; another secret influence revealed--and shared.
My residency at the VCCA is winding down. It's been a beautiful, peaceful, and productive month here. Next week I'll head back to Chicago in time to catch Dal Niente's much-awaited performance of Georg Haas' In Vain.
Those in the city, I'd love to see you next Saturday, March 2nd, when Grant Wallace Band will open for Elk as part of their EP release show at Uncommon Ground. Here is the facebook event page.
Your next chance to hear GWB is April 17th, when we'll play at the Red Line Tap, opening for singer-songwriter Amy LaVere as part of her national tour.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts