Quartet No. 2: Flight (2002)
from the Invisible Cities String Quartet Cycle
|FUGUE 1: Birds
|FUGUE 2: Insects and paper airplanes (scherzo)
|FUGUE 3: Stars
|FUGUE 4: Langley (scherzo)
Daedalus and Icarus
String Quartet No. 2: Flight conflates two definitions
of the word fugue: the musical composition and the idea of flight
itself. Each of the six movements uses fugal procedures; each
also focuses on a specific aspect of flying.
flight \ n 1: an act of passing through the
air by the use of wings 2: an unrestrained exercise or display
fugue \ n [fr. Latin: fuga
flight] a polyphonic composition in which one or two subjects
are imitated by successively entering voices in a continuously
interweaving contrapuntal texture
FUGUE 1: Birds
Although many compositions throughout the ages have imitated
bird song, the flight of birds has seldom been captured in music.
To launch themselves into the air, birds use their leg muscles
in conjunction with flapping their wings. On each downstroke,
the tips of the wings twist forward while the rest of the wing
remains level. Once airborne, most birds alternate the flapping
of their wings with soaring, or riding the prevailing air currents.
Creating a musical equivalent to bird flight required a novel
approach to fugue-writing. The subject, rather than being played
by a single instrument, is a gesture that results from the blending
of all four instruments. As the subject passes through different
key centers, "countersubjects" are added in the form of
solo figures stated by individual instruments.
The natural kinship between a wing and a bow arm finds expression
in the coda, in which each instrument relaxes into a gentle
swaying motion between two double-stops.
FUGUE 2: Insects and paper airplanes (scherzo)
The darting, buzzing flight of insects is the subject of this
scherzo, which is marked "Very fast and a little obnoxious."
By contrast, the trio section is a whimsical enactment of paper
airplane flight: lazy, chaotic, and ultimately doomed. The insects
return with renewed fervor, only to be summarily dispatched
by the cellist.
FUGUE 3: Stars
Stars don't fly in any literal sense of the word, but their
gradual emergence and distant traversal of the night sky never
fails to promote quiet introspection.
FUGUE 4: Langley (scherzo)
In 1903, the US Army gave Samuel Pierpont Langley an enormous
sum of money to build a steam-powered aerodrome. Huge crowds
of onlookers and reporters gathered at the launching site: a
tall scaffolding mounted on a houseboat. The engine gradually
built up tremendous power, creating an increasingly deafening
sound -- before the aerodrome dropped off its perch and fell
straight down into the Potomac River.
A few days later, the Wright brothers made their first successful
flight on the North Carolina coast -- and nobody noticed.
After a hundred years have gone by, it's comforting to know
that the mismanagement of government funds and the obtuseness
of the media are not inventions of our own time.
FUGUE 5: Swings
The fifth fugue, an evocation of playground swingsets, is a tribute to flights of fancy, especially the peacefully unselfconscious dreams of children. It segues directly into the sixth and final movement.
FUGUE 6: Daedalus and Icarus
The quartet concludes in a double-fugue with contrasting subjects: first Daedalus, the creative muse of flight, followed by Icarus, the ambitious, aggressive manipulator of flight. The movement culminates in a coda inspired by Orville Wright's tragically uncomprehending words after the first aircraft had been perfected: "This is an invention which will make further wars practically impossible!"
ORDER STRING QUARTET NO. 2: FLIGHT: