Ives Quartet premieres piece paying tribute to four poets
"I am a grave poetic hen/That lays poetic eggs," poet Ezra Pound once wrote.
But trying to cook those eggs into a song yielded only scrambles for composer Roger Bourland. While he's written everything from film scores to cantatas, the UCLA composition professor found that some things — like the ground-breaking, rebellious words of Pound — simply resist melody and harmony.
So after being co-commissioned to write a string quartet by both his aunt and the Palo Alto-based Ives Quartet, Bourland decided to set poet and not poem to music.
The result is "Four Poets," his first string quartet, which will get its world premiere by the Ives Quartet at a Thursday concert on May 11 in Palo Alto. The work pays tribute to Pound, Friedrich Schiller, James Merrill and William Carlos Williams.
"I looked at them as basically musical portraits," he said of the quartet's four movements. "I didn't take a specific poem; I just read tons of their poems, and 'ready, set, go.' It's a very subjective thing."
Each movement tries to capture a poet's spirit. Bourland particularly enjoyed contrasting the wild "madman" energy of the American Pound with the more mainstream feel of the 18th-century German poet Schiller, whose "Ode to Joy" became part of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
Then there was the welcome challenge of analyzing Merrill, an American poet who died in 1995 and was a personal friend of Bourland's.
"This man claims that all of his poetry comes from the Ouija board," Bourland said with good humor. "He was a 20th-century mystic who maybe is pulling your leg and maybe is not."
In addition, Bourland chose Williams, an American poet and doctor whose 20th-century works such as "This Is Just To Say" have a straight-ahead feel.
Ives Quartet cellist Stephen Harrison finds the Williams movement in the quartet especially appealing because of its serenity.
"He (Williams) glorified the simple, and so Roger's music is drawn to the beauty in simple things," he said.
It was Harrison's link with Bourland that brought "Four Poets" to the Ives; the two men have known each other since student days in Boston some 30 years ago. When Ives members — who also include Bettina Mussumeli and Susan Freier on violin and Scott Woolweaver on viola — commission works, they choose composers who impress them. Then they let the composers forge ahead on their own to develop a theme and style for the piece, Harrison said.
That's part of the Ives Quartet's philosophy of trying new things, rather than sticking to a diet of Beethoven and Mozart.
The group began its life as the Stanford String Quartet in 1983, but then left the university in 1998 to go its own way. The musicians chose as their muse the maverick American composer Charles Ives.
Born in 1874, Ives was a pioneer in American music; unlike many of his contemporaries, he was trained in the States instead of Europe, Harrison said. His compositions include tunes from American hymns and other tunes, many of which he learned as an organist.
"He realized church music was at the very heart of America at that time," Harrison said.
Ives was also one of the first to play with polytonality, mingling two or more keys simultaneously. This can be heard in another work being played at the May 11 concert, Ives' "String Quartet No. 1."
"At the end of the fourth movement, I and the first violinist are playing two hymns in two meters at the same time," Harrison said. It's an intriguing mix that can either "blend or clash," depending on your tastes, he said.
This work pushes the envelope of the traditional view of a string quartet as a "civilized discourse" among four musicians, Harrison said. He added with a chuckle, "Ives believed we could also have an argument, a shouting match."
With a broader view of music, the Ives Quartet is hoping also to find a broader audience. While Harrison said Palo Alto audiences are devoted, they could also be younger. He criticizes the drop in support for school music programs and says his quartet plays at schools whenever possible.
Recently, the quartet performed at a low-income middle school in San Jose where the student orchestra had only one cello and a sprinkling of other instruments.
Although many of the students had not heard a string quartet before, they listened raptly, Harrison said. Afterwards, one girl stood up and asked, "Can we sing for you?"
So the young choir sang to the string quartet. Even though it was a pop song, that didn't matter, Harrison said.
"They saw music exactly the way it ought to be seen — a universal sharing," he said. "We just sat there with these silly smiles on our faces, holding our instruments."
What: The Ives Quartet's spring concert. The program is: Ives' "String Quartet No. 1," Bourland's "String Quartet No. 1: Four Poets" (world premiere), and Mendelssohn's "String Quartet, Op. 12."
Where: St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 600 Colorado Ave., Palo Alto
When: Thursday, May 11, 8 p.m. There will also be a Friday performance in San Jose.
Cost: $25 general, $20 seniors, $15 students, and free for ages 12 and under
Info: Call (650) 328-0990 or go to www.ivesquartet.org.
Want to hear a preview of the Ives Quartet? Check out arts editor Rebecca Wallace's blog to hear the musicians playing "Magyar." Go to www.PaloAltoOnline.com and click on "Ad Libs."