A History of the String Quartet in its Natural Habitat

for string quartet and electronics

Commissioned by the Thalea String Quartet and has been made possible by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund.

A History of the String Quartet in its Natural Habitat examines the format of the string quartet filtered through the history of recorded sound — perhaps more appropriately, through the development of electronic music. 

Composers have gravitated towards the string quartet over the last 400 years because it is prized for its homogeneity of sound quality (timbre), its portability, and its ubiquity. Like the piano, it is an easy way to express a musical idea. However, regardless of what kind of music a string quartet plays (Haydn, Borodin, The Beatles), a string quartet will always sound like a string quartet — there are only so many kinds of sounds a quartet can make. In only the last fifty years, composers have sought to extend the timbral palette of the quartet to express new musical possibilities. While these new timbral expressions offered the listener new angles in which to ‘hear’ a string quartet, their tethering to a specific musical language that prizes spontaneity, disjunction, and microtonality, offers us little more than noise capsules that sound more outdated like Schoenberg, Brahms and Mozart by the decade. 

I often wonder what role the string quartet has today now that all of its expressive possibilities have been exhausted? Is there any room for a new string quartet? The same could be said about electronic sounds. Have we exhausted our potential for new timbres? What role will composers and musicians play when our formats have decayed?

In my own struggle, I have found that I don’t see this piece as a string quartet, per se, but rather as a memorial — a vanitas — to the string quartet. It is a set of reconstructions, montages, and allusions that curiously explores new musical possibilities using archaic and obsolescent practices and technologies. 

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String Quartet, Stereo Playback with Discreet Click Track


PART ONE: Upon the Death of Valdemar Poulsen

PART TWO: Memento Mori
1. Day Signal
2. Dirige
3. ...Un Parfum Troublant la Mémoire
4. Crucifixus
5. Night Signal
6. The Struggle for Love in a Dream

PART THREE: I am the Gospel and the Gun


25 Minutes


2 December 2018
Thalea String Quartet
San Francisco, California