Four on the Floor (2006) (11′)
for string quartet (see also: transcription for string orchestra, 2009.)
I love writing chamber music. Ever since I went to the Third Street Music School in high school, where I played in chamber groups as a pianist, I’ve been drawn to the intimacy and immediacy of chamber ensembles, as well as to the interesting possibilities for solo and group dynamics that they present. All of my biggest works are for chamber groups, and much of that music has dealt with weighty issues, such as death and memory. Despite my privileged relationship with chamber music, I’d never written a string quartet, perhaps the fundamental chamber music ensemble in Western history, before 2005. Most composers wind up writing a quartet sometime in college, when they realize that all their “important” predecessors have done so, and shouldn’t they follow in that tradition? I’m not sure how I avoided that particular bug, but when it came time to write a string quartet, I decided to go in a direction that would take me far away from my previous chamber music, and from the usual terrain of string quartet writing.
Many composers handle strings by taking advantage either of their singing, lyrical quality, writing music that is almost vocal in nature, or of their amazing ability to produce a huge variety of textures, through changes in bow pressure, placement, and articulation. If I had written my “usual” chamber work – and I may well have this string quartet still in me – I’m sure it would have gone in those directions. But for this first string quartet, I wanted to write something else. I wanted to write a piece that really rocked, not in the easy sense of writing out rock chords, but in the energy and vibe that would be conveyed in the music. To get this effect, I took advantage of the precise playing of a good string quartet, as well as the dramatic sounds of strings moving with and against each other. String instruments blend like no other; a quartet can sound like one instrument, or four (or two or three), depending on how the parts are written, and can move from sound to sound on a dime. Here, I ask the quartet to sound like a sextet, or perhaps an octet, through the frequent use of double stops (where players play on more than one string at once). The result is a thick texture that’s constantly moving and shifting while the staggered rhythms drive the piece forward. It’s ridiculously virtuosic, requiring remarkable individual energy and endurance and a degree of precision that only a top-rate string quartet can provide. Many thanks to the Israel Contemporary String Quartet for the recording posted above.
In the spirit of joy and togetherness that I hope is embodied in the work, and in honor of their commitment to one another, Four on the Floor is dedicated to Amelia Hollander and Christopher Ames, on the occasion of their marriage.