Madra, for string quartet

This work has had two incarnations. It began as Gram, a modular short score for variable instrumentation. It consisted mostly of single measures with repeat signs and a suggested number of repetitions shown just above. The title page indicated the score could be played by two percussionists and/or piano/synthesizer and/or string quartet. Performers were essentially invited to arrange the music themselves.

When Gram was workshopped by the Madawaska String Quartet, leading to an eventual premiere and recording, I was obliged to create a traditional score and set of parts. I gave the piece a new title, Madra.

It was at that point a fully realized, collaborative work. After several live performances it was recorded for commercial release. Below is an excerpt, followed by my notes from Madawaska’s CD prefab (available from the Canadian Music Centre and on iTunes).

Madra was composed in 1999 and revised in 2002, immediately after I participated in Madawaska’s composer workshop. Its title is also the first name of my maternal grandmother, to whom the work is dedicated. She was a farmer and schoolteacher in the Canadian West. I recall she would play hymns on the piano in Sunday school when I was very young and perhaps there is an echo of that here.

The quartet is in one movement with five sections: slow, fast, slow, fast, very slow. There are a number of audible influences on the piece: the repeating canons and modularity of minimalism; the polyrhythms and hocketing of Central and West African traditional music; and root-chord progressions from popular music. The harmony is diatonic, and there are measured amounts of harmonic stasis as found in some medieval vocal music and modal jazz.

With these influences in mind, all of the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic content is derived from the three-note cell repeated at the beginning. Symmetry is employed in a general way throughout, especially in the vertical construction of intervals.

When I presented the piece to the Madawaska Quartet, it had very few dynamic or expressive indications – in a naive way it was an “Art of the Fugue” approach to scoring. More than merely realizing and interpreting it, Madawaska has infused Madra with tonal colour and kinetic direction beyond what I could have imagined while composing. They have given the music a voice, and a sense of light and weightlessness.

performed by The Madawaska String Quartet
Rebecca van der Post, violin
Sarah Fraser-Raff, violin
Anna Redekop, viola
Amber Ghent, cello

Recorded by Garnet Willis, St. Andrew-by-the-Lake Church, Toronto Islands, 2009
Mixed at Noisetree Digital
All rights reserved

Music and composer’s notes copyright Bruce Russell 2012

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