My Columbus Symphony colleague violist Brett Allen recently wrote a blog post about his new composition for violin, viola, cello and bassoon. Brett and I have already performed it with Quartet Amici here in Columbus. It was challenging for each instrument, but the piece is a lot of fun to put together and is extremely appealing to the audience.
Here's Brett's explanation of his new piece, 4amici:
4amici: Quartet for Violin, Viola, Cello & Bassoon
In more recent times, and in like manner, composers Villa-Lobos and Vaughn Williams have works setting solo bassoon against a bed of strings, though not the exact combination under discussion. But, Bernard Garfield, long-time Principal Bassoonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, now retired, has no less than three Quartets for Bassoon, Violin, Viola and Cello in his catalog, in addition to reams of other bassoon-centric chamber works.
When Betsy Sturdevant, Principal Bassoonist with the Columbus Symphony, invited me to play and compose for her Amici Quartet, I saw it as an opportunity to break the bassoon-showcase mold in some respects. I thought, "Bassoon, plus Violin, Viola and Cello. How likely is that? It sounds like a wedding gig where the 2nd Violinist became indisposed and the other quartet members went out and grabbed the first instrumentalist to come along - a bassoonist!" Such suspension of disbelief is possible only in music videos, but I retained the idea of this being some kind of pick-up group.
That, plus I had just seen the movie, The Visitor. I won't give the plot away except to say that a burned out college professor gets hooked on hand drumming and starts showing up at community drum circles. The phenomena of drum circles is of huge interest to me because it is quite the opposite of my classical, tightly structured training in music. What I am saying is - it explodes my whole musical universe! No one brings music. No one comes "prepared." It doesn't matter how "good" you are. No one knows what's going to happen. There's no leader. It's entirely spontaneous. As the drumming rises in intensity, people start dancing and singing. All the while new and interesting drumming patterns are rising to the surface. There's no distinction between audience and performers. No one "performance" can be written down or recreated. No one owns it. No one says, "I invented this, I am a great genius." It seems to reach down deep in the human soul and call forth some primitive, essential need to express. Everyone goes away quite satisfied, the same as if they had just listened to Beethoven's 9th Symphony.
I went to work on my "4amici" quartet with all these things in mind. I had a vision, like a stage play. Four buddies (four friends, "quattro amici"), wandering about the city, decide to gather in a public spot for a jam session. In this vision each instrumentalist is an equal participant, it's not just the bassoon on display. Each one throws in a musical idea. One is thinking about half-steps. Another throws in a forceful downward third. Another takes that and turns it on its head. Before long some semblance of music takes shape. Suddenly, there is an interruption, ceremonial music, as if the mayor is passing by. Later, the same material is transformed into something that sounds like a war song from the old country. Then the strings decide to cut the bassoon out and do their own thing. But the bassoonist won't have it and crashes the party. And so it goes, on and on. Each section spins out new ideas and new sections. Where it is headed and where it ends is anyone's guess. Eventually though, as with drum circles, the high energy dissipates and everyone calls it a night.
Sample parts are available on Scribd.com. Sheet Music is available for purchase here.