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Matthew Aucoin

Publisher: AMP

Soft Power (2018)
Commissioned by the Union College Concert Series in honor of the 18th President of Union College, Stephen C. Ainlay & Judith Gardner Ainlay.
Publisher
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Category
Works for 2-6 Players
Sub Category
String Quartet
Year Composed
2018
Duration
5 Minutes
Orchestration
Availability
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Programme Note
Matthew Aucoin Soft Power (2018)
Composer note:
When Mark Steinberg, the Brentano Quartet's first violinist, approached me about composing a piece for his quartet, I felt both enthusiastic and wary: there are few musical mediums more challenging, more revealing (or, in the end, more rewarding) than the string quartet. I hadn't written anything for string quartet since high school, and I definitely didn't want those pieces to see the light of day. So I suggested splitting our project in two: a small-scale piece of five or six minutes, followed by a full-length quartet the following year.

Soft Power is the first, smaller-scale piece, a string quartet in miniature. It is a kind of effortful meditation, premised on a simple gesture played by all four players: a single chord, played in a stuttering, receding gesture, recurs again and again, like a wave. The gesture feels, to me, like a deep, shuddering breath, a breath taken in an effort to calm oneself down. I wanted to create both an aura of tranquility and the sense that this tranquility is hard-won.

Hard-won, and impermanent: this peaceful aura is finally punctured by some outside force, and the four voices, which had existed in a fragile equilibrium, are sent scattering in a sudden landslide. I'm not sure what that outside force is; you, the listener, are free to fill in that blank for yourself. The piece ends, as many of my pieces do, with a question mark.

I've noticed several conflicting tendencies in my music. One side of my musical personality wants to burrow down a thorny, non-tonal rabbit hole; another is attracted to the luminous patience of so-called Minimalist music, or process music. But a third — and, for now, dominant — part of me wants to synthesize these conflicting tendencies. Soft Power is a small-scale enactment of that synthesis: for the piece's first five minutes, we seem to be in the textural territory of process music, with familiar chords chanted over and over until (hopefully) they are defamiliarized. In its last minute, however, the tonal bubble is burst, and we're in uncharted terrain. Maybe that's the core of my "synthesis" pieces: these pieces feature an overarching drama, a narrative which contains both the construction of a "bubble," a sanctuary or refuge, and the deconstruction of that sanctuary.

— Matthew Aucoin

Performances
Date
Title
  • 18 JAN 2019
    Soft Power Country Premiere
    Fondazione Accademia Chigiana, Siena, Italy
    Brentano String Quartet
  • 20 JAN 2019
    Amici della Musica, Florence, Italy
    Brentano String Quartet
  • 22 JAN 2019
    Soft Power Country Premiere
    Theatergemeinde Köln, Cologne, Germany
    Brentano String Quartet
  • 23 JAN 2019
    Kurf├╝rstliches Palais, Trier, Germany
    Brentano String Quartet

Reviews
It was only six minutes long, but composer Matthew Aucoin's new work, titled "Soft Power," was an arresting highlight of the Brentano String Quartet's Sunday afternoon concert at Union College's Memorial Chapel. The piece is the first commission in the 46-year history of the concert series. From the opening notes, "Soft Power" was bold and sculptural. A B-flat Major chord shudders into existence and is repeated at a moderate pace and dynamic, with that same stuttering attack, at least a dozen times. Meanwhile, a quiet and thick melodic line is passed among the players like a rope linking together the steady flow of chords. Suddenly, the chord is played with a shift of voices (the same notes in different registers). The change arrives like a revelation. The towering harmony continues to be repeated at a measured, breathing pace. Eventually, there's one more version of B-flat Major to arrive and be repeated. There was a luminous quality to all of this. Somehow the air around the music had its own presence, probably owing to the Brentano's delicate, thoughtful touch. Finally, out of nowhere the composer jumps off a precipice and lands us in the busy, scribbly world of Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter. Three phrases of atonal filigree and the whole thing is over.
Joseph Dalton , Times Union ,23/04/2018
Both Steinberg and Aucoin use the word "meditative" to describe the new work, "Soft Power." According to Aucoin, the piece attempts to create a synthesis between what he calls process music (better known as minimalism) and the thorny style of atonal writing. "It's about the power of a gentle calming gesture," he says. Aucoin doesn't claim to have a regular meditation practice, but he admitted that amid his busy professional life a feeling of calm may be something to aspire to. "People often make the assumption that a piece of music shows who the composer is," he says. "I think we tend to write where we want to be rather than where we are. If you're going to write a piece that goes into a trancelike state, you have to put yourself into that state to write the piece."
Joseph Dalton , Times Union ,19/04/2018
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