Michael Ellison’s New String Quartet

This coming Sunday, the NOVA Chamber Music Series will present the second performance of Michael Ellison’s String Quartet #3 – ‘Fiddlin.’  The work was co-commissioned by NOVA and the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music for the Fry Street Quartet, who performed the world premiere in Tuscon last month.  Ellison's new quartet will be performed in Utah twice this month (NOVA on Jan. 12 as well as a repeat performance in Logan on Jan. 14).

Michael Ellison has worked in Istanbul for over ten years, where he co-founded and directs the groundbreaking Hezarfen Ensemble, a group that specializes in combining Turkish instruments with the performance practices and mediums of Western music. In his note on String Quartet #3 (below), Ellison discusses how his music creates a kind of parallel universe to our modern existence, seeking meaning in tradition within a global landscape that is largely post-tradition.

String Quartet #3 is based on the idea of ‘fiddling’ and ‘riffs’ across traditions, primarily using North American bluegrass fiddle and Turkish/Balkan kemençe styles as starting points for a work that deals with tradition, its endlessly revitalizing energy, and its integration into a contemporary, highly ‘rhythmicized’ compositional language.  With its stream-of- consciousness, multi-movement structure (even more movements than in my seven movement String Quartet #2, but just as continuous) this work contextualizes ‘vernacular,’ traditional string figures and ‘riffs’ within a more abstract sound world, presenting fiddling elements in some moments as a total, immediate physical presence occupying the entire quartet sound space, while at other times juxtaposing them as fragments of pastoral innocence set within a web of post-modern abstraction and illusion or memory; that is to say, at one or several steps removed from tradition.  For me, this is something that perhaps roughly corresponds to situations we all face today and difficulties of integration within our own consciousnesses, seeking meaning from tradition in a post-tradition, post-classical music, multi-cultural milieu—an urgent reason for creating new works that can address such paradoxes in a musical realm.    For me, this also means a give and take, and a creative tension between perceived vernacular elements and my own compositional language, for which the quartet medium provides a particular discipline while offering nearly limitless intimate and expressive freedom.

While based on fiddling elements, the work is meant to be chamber music in the deepest sense, creating what Hans Keller called the peculiar ‘harmonic counterpoint’ that only the string quartet can create, at times within dense or widely spread, contemporary textures, while maintaining a high level of individuality between the players and navigating its cultural and technical overlays with wit, energy of the ‘folk’ and a dose of formal, mercurial audacity. – Michael Ellison

JH, 1.5.14