Old Environmental Program 1 - notes

Joseph Haydn’s Op. 76 No. 4 quartet suggests an Arcadian ideal of natural beauty. The opening evokes a sunrise, giving the work it’s nickname, musically paving the way for an optimistic and promising future.

Where Haydn’s quartet paints an idealized portrait, Kurt Rohde’s new work “seeking all that's still unsung” asks us to examine the quality of our relationships with the world around us, and face uncomfortable truths and the increasing fragility of life on earth.

“seeking all that's still unsung” listens to the rapidly changing outside sonic natural world and brings that ‘inside.’ An interior mirroring of the sounds that surround us, and that we take for granted, it documents in music the gradual disappearance and extinction of songs that will never be sung again.” — Kurt Rohde, 2019.

While Rohde’s work contemplates the relationship between humankind and the natural world, Béla Bartók’s 6th quartet gives voice to personal and societal anxieties. With the backdrop of the impending destruction of World War 2 and the death of his mother, the piece can be seen as both a farewell to his homeland, and a warning about the consequences of society’s actions.

“I cannot imagine how I could live in such a country.... Strictly speaking, it would be my duty to exile myself, if that is still possible. But even under the most favorable auspices, it would cause me an enormous amount of trouble and moral anguish to earn my daily bread in a foreign country.... All this adds up to the same old problem, whether to go or stay.” — Bela Bartok, 1939

Bartok’s 6th quartet explores the full spectrum of human activity, from the sublime to the grotesque, ultimately returning to our capacity for empathy. Giving voice to sadness in the face of increasingly menacing societal forces, what are the choices?

The program concludes with John Luther Adams’s ethereal string quartet, The Wind in High Places. Each of its three movements is named after a location in the Alaskan wilderness. More than just sound pictures depicting a place, each movement also attempts to capture the essence of memories from those locations. The work is performed entirely on open strings and natural overtone harmonics.

“I’ve long been enamored with the ethereal tones of Aeolian harps — instruments that draw their music directly from the wind. The Wind in High Places treats the string quartet as a large, 16-stringed harp. All the sounds in the piece are produced as natural harmonics or on open strings. Over the course of almost 20 minutes, the fingers of the musicians never touch the fingerboards of the instruments. If I could’ve found a way to make this music without them touching the instruments at all, I would have.” —  John Luther Adams

The Wind in High Places brings us back to the natural beauty of the Haydn. After the violence and mournful expression of the Bartók, John Luther Adams invites us to contemplate nature, while tasking us with the responsibility to protect what we value most.