Before the performance, composer Tom Baker gave an introduction to the music, and to the book “Invisible Cities” on which it is based. Or maybe, “based” is not exactly the right word – Mr. Baker emphasized that the separate sections of the quartet, though named after sections in the novel, were not intended as tone paintings describing events in the book, but as reflections on the “essence” of that particular “invisible city”.
Some clarification is in order here for anyone who hasn’t read the book. (That would include me, though as I write this I’ve just gotten a copy out from the public library.) “Invisible Cities”, by Italo Calvino, is a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. The Khan has sensed the end of his empire coming soon; Polo consoles him with tales of the cities he has seen in his travels. At some point it becomes clear that most (or all) of these cities are fabrications, and the question is asked, “…are imaginary places as interesting as real ones…?” There is no particular “plot” other than this; the book is open-ended and could theoretically be read in any order.
"Invisible Cities", painting by Nora Sturges.
Mr. Baker’s quartet had the imaginary, dreamlike atmosphere of these imaginary places, conveyed with a heavy use of delicate harmonics and whispery ponticello (bowing near the bridge). There were five movements, each describing the “essence” of one of Calvino’s Cities. The opening movement recalled the later quartets of Shostakovich. Melodies were treated contrapuntally, with an elegiac mood. This was the most “classical” part of the work; subsequent movements became progressively atmospheric and even surrealistic (though lacking the sense of disquiet often associated with surrealism, and of course I’m not exactly sure what “surrealist” – not serialist – music would entail anyway). One highlight was the fourth movement, which described a city so perfectly aligned with the stars that any change in the city brought a new nova or collision of planets. This was a moonlit piece of music; infinitely slow, mathematically structured, not rhythmic yet not exactly freeform; quiet chords (microtonal, neither harmonious nor quite dissonant) came and went like slow breaths, suspended above their own silence. As Mr. Baker pointed out after the performance, this piece could have been much longer (but if so, would have destroyed the structure of the quartet as a whole). I agree on both counts – a much longer version of this piece is possible, but in a different context; I’d like to hear it perhaps as some of Pierre Boulez’ works that exist in several versions – one being an extended work that outgrew its boundaries in a multi-movement piece.
The fifth movement was something of a culmination: rapid quasi-aleatory figures gave rise to rhythms from the first movement and then a slow disappearance (fading like a dream upon awakening) – the last thirty seconds or so were “played” in pantomime. This was a beautiful work, and I’m waiting to hear more – Mr. Baker announced that it is only the beginning of an extended cycle of quartets based on Calvino’s Cities…
Guitarist Tom Baker has been active as a composer, performer and music producer in the Seattle new-music scene since 1994. He is the artistic director of the Seattle Composers' Salon, and plays guitar in the group “Triptet”, both of which I have reviewed elsewhere in this blog. The Quartet was played by Eric Rynes (violin), Tari Nelson-Zagar (violin), Brianna Atwell (viola), and Peter Williams (cello).