Lydians to premiere quartet by commission prize winner

Concert to feature composer Kurt Rohde's 'Treatises For An Unrecovered Past'

Photos/Mike Lovett

From left: Judith Eissenberg, Josh Gordon, Mark Berger and Daniel Stepner rehearse with composer Kurt Rohde.

When the Lydian String Quartet premieres “Treatises For An Unrecovered Past,” its members and audience will conjure music from different times and places.

Kurt Rohde, who won the inaugural Lydian String Quartet Commission Prize and spent a year composing the work, says he imagined each of its seven movements as pieces from the past found and reassembled in the future.

The work will debut in a concert at the Slosberg Music Center April 6 at 8 p.m., with a preconcert lecture by the composer at 7 p.m.

“I had been reading a lot of treatises from the Renaissance,” Rohde says of his inspiration. “They were not specifically about music, but there was something describing sounds we don’t hear today, describing instruments and tuning systems that no longer exist.”

Rohde was interested in how the bygone music could be reconstructed, he says.

Rohde is a viola player and accomplished composer whose past honors include the Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Guggenheim. He is a music professor at the University of California at Davis.

He says the idea of extinct sounds appealed to him because he’s always looking for ways to expand the idea of beauty in music, and likes to explore the concept of hearing one’s own history in a piece of music.

The opening movement, Rohde explains, tries to capture the very idea of playing a string instrument. It begins with tuning.

“If you know anything about musicians who play string instruments,” says Rohde, with a laugh, “they tune a lot.”

The second movement contains fragments that sound similar to a Gregorian chant, he says, but turns out to be a “screwed up” version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced.”

Dan Stepner, a violinist for the Lydian String Quartet, says the new piece is a large, complex work that is rhythmically challenging and atypical for a quartet with a lot of interesting sound effects and color. At times, members will even play harmonicas, a gong, and a Chinese paper accordion.

“We have to create this sense of improvisatory freedom against a very rhythmic background,” he says. “There’s a written-out improvisatory quality. We have to be very deliberate like a good actor has to be very deliberate to come across as insane.”

The approximately 30-minute work includes an homage to Mary Ruth Ray, the quartet’s founding violist, who passed away in January. Rohde had finished the piece in December but rewrote the final movement, “Node: Ex nihilo…In nihil [-for Mary Ruth-],” after her death. Violist Mark Berger, a doctoral student in the music department, will play the concert with Stepner, violinist Judith Eissenberg and cellist Joshua Gordon.

“The piece is going along very excited, then it starts to dissipate, and the last movement is very ethereal and sort of evaporating,” Rohde says of the last movement. “Some [musicians] leave the stage but continue playing, even play other instruments. It’s reminiscent of the Renaissance – music that’s long since passed but that you still recognize.”

A committee of judges awarded Rohde the commission based on blind submissions of past works from an international field of 430 composers.

The $15,000 prize was established last year by friends of the Lydian String Quartet to encourage creativity and enhance string quartet literature.

Tickets are $20, $15 for the Brandeis community and seniors and $5 for students. For tickets, visit Brandeis Tickets or call (781) 736-3400.

Categories: Arts

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