Easley Blackwood: String Quartet no. 1

performed by the Pacifica Quartet on Cedille Records (sorry, no YouTube), or here in iTunes

Meet Easley Blackwood, a living American composer.

Easley Blackwood, Jr. was born on April 21, 1933 in Indianapolis, Indiana, started studying piano, and by 14 was making solo appearances with the Indianapolis Symphony. He earned his Master of Arts degree at Yale, and in the mid-50s, went off to Paris to study with such amazing people as Paul Hindemith, Olivier Messiaen, and Nadia Boulanger, the woman who taught everyone.

Apparently from shortly after he returned to the States up until 1997, he taught at the University of Chicago, eventually becoming Professor Emeritus, and is still teaching classes today (at the time of this posting, or of reading his Wiki).

Wiki says that “early music by Blackwood has been characterized as in an atonal yet a formally conservative style.” As recently as 1980-81, however, he made a drastic change to what he might be most well-known for, his first microtonal compositions, Twelve Microtonal Etudes for Electronic Music Media. He used equal-tempered musical scales, having “explored all equal temperaments from 13 through 24, including 15-ET and 19-ET.” He is also a noted pianist himself, as I suppose is anyone who has performed Boulez’s piano sonatas, and is pianist in the chamber group Chicago Pro Musica.

As may be typical, it seems Blackwood is known most (in)famously (?) for his most extreme approaches to music, the microtonal stuff performed on synthesizer or specially-tuned instruments for his scales of differing temperaments. But to be honest, that doesn’t (at least yet) interest me. I saw this album on a library shelf, from Cedille Records, and was aware of Blackwood’s name, but had never heard anything from him, and the string quartet genre is as good a place to start as any. I own quartets from Haydn to Ferneyhough, Beethoven to Babbitt, so there couldn’t be much here to surprise or shock.

And it’s a nice piece. Blackwood’s first quartet dates from 1957 and clocks in, in three movements, at about sixteen minutes. There is virtually nothing online about these pieces, so… you’re going to have to deal with my opinions in this article rather than any insights. The first obvious insights, and maybe only ones, are that this was before his departure to microtonality, obviously, and would have been right after his time in Paris. He would have been in his mid-30s, and I would guess this was maybe, depending on the conditions surrounding his return, a high point in his musical career: he has his degree, studied with some of the absolute most famous composers of the 20th century in Europe (or anywhere, really), and comes back to his homeland and starts a professorship at the University of Chicago. Then again, that change, and the pressure now to do something meaningful and successful could have been suffocating, but who knows.

The first movement of the quartet, marked largo, begins with a somber, very expressive cello solo. In stark contrast to that is the angular, crunchy figures that the rest of the quartet introduce when they enter. If I had to pick one of the above names to say he sounds like the most here, I’d say Hindemith. There’s a rich contrapuntal motion that emphasizes certain identifiable figures, but also manages to stay largely transparent and clear, like a crystal with many different angles and edges, none of which obscure its clarity. The first movement is the longest of the work, and in contrast with the opening passage, we have a change of mood, where all four parts suddenly fall into (more or less) unison, and a soloist emerges, a more dramatic, tense expression from very high cello, and then viola, played over tremolo strings. It’s richer and softer than the angular figures introduced after the cello’s solo, which return like a sort of climax to the first movement, if this is the development/recapitulation of a standard sonata-form. It’s a straightforward movement, with plenty of depth and complexity, an interesting, clean nature, that’s at once hard and soft. Even if it is maybe just slightly more a homework assignment than his later works, it’s a nice construction. The first movement ends crunchily.

The second movement is a delicious, subtle, quiet scherzo-like thing, with a bouncy rhythm introduced by low strings before a solo violin slithers in on top of them. It’s performed in whispers and winks, and an equal amount of transparency and texture, akin to Hindemith’s writing, making use of solo lines with a trio of accompanists, as when the cello takes center stage in the middle part of the movement, ending his solo in a tragic-sounding line. The movement eventually returns to the bouncy, delicate pizzicato tick-tocks of the opening. It could almost serve as both a slow movement and a scherzo, a very subdued one, and the movement ends slowly, quietly fading away.

The finale, however, shatters the silence, with a crunchy fugue-like movement started by cello, the most dissonant and most driving of the quartet. Shorty after its beginning, the cello and viola play a melody in unison to which the violins respond. It’s a never-ending whir of gears and contrapuntal textures that crunchily intersect at points here and there.

I’m not entirely sure what it is about this work, but it catches my ear. It has a simplicity, (perhaps more appropriately a clarity) but also a complex richness. Again, I’d liken it to Hindemith, but with a distinctly more modern approach. Attribute it to a young (relative to his teachers) American composer, or to Messiaen’s influence, but there’s a modernness, a freshness, but a very strong sense of musicality to the work, an attention to detail that means nothing here seems trite or without purpose. It’s a compact, dense little quartet, full of motion and its own subtle intensity.

I’m told that after Blackwood’s microtonal wild hair phase, he settled back down into a much more late-Romantic idiom, and his two later quartets, on the same Cedille disc, bear this out. We’ll get to those eventually, but even if I don’t currently have any interest in his more (in)famous microtonal compositions, he is clearly a musician of great talent, and perhaps a name we should all know, especially as a living American composer.

That’s not all from English-speaking folk. We’ve had two other Americans (Beach and Gershwin), then Britten and Field, and there are two more English-speaking composers left for this month, one from each side of the pond. I didn’t mean for this to be such an Anglo-American month, but it has turned out as such, so stay tuned for them as well as some more obscure stuff.

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