String Quartet No. 1 (1995),
Winner, 1996 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition
Cleveland Quartet recording winner, 1996 Grammy Award for for Best Chamber Music Performance
In writing my string quartet I was always aware that I was dealing with a unique instrument (composed of four instrumentalists). Unlike the orchestra (unified by a maestro’s vision and beat) or most other chamber combinations (composed of highly differentiated soloists), the string quartet must be able to produce a conductorless unity of sound and ensemble that can only be accomplished by years of playing together.
It is possible to ask a quartet to play and “breathe” as one instrument, even while employing considerable rhythmic freedom (rubato). Alternatively, the players can achieve an independence from one another that is otherwise only possibly when a group is precisely conducted.
These special qualities of quartet playing became the basis of my first essay in this extraordinary medium.
Added to this was the fact that I was writing for one of the greatest of all quartets, the Cleveland Quartet and that they were presenting this work during their farewell concert tour before disbanding.
The idea of an ensemble such as this playing for the last time surely colored the emotional palate of my quartet with a feeling of farewell, and while the work is basically abstract in content, certain areas (like the final Postlude) cannot help but echo these sentiments.
Architecturally, the 30 minute work is in five movements that bear superficial resemblance to the arch-form principles of Bartok’s fourth quartet (movements I and V are related, movements II and IV are related, with a central “night music”), but in fact all five movements of the quartet are also united by similar motives and thematic content.
Specifically, the quartet is based upon a motto composed of even repetitions of a single tone, and a sequence of disjunct minor thirds. There are also four pitch centers recurring throughout the work: C, C-sharp, G and G-sharp.