Summer Circle (“Sommerkreis”) for string quartet, 2007
June 9 2011, recording session in the Cue Recording studio, Washington D.C., with the Krypton Quartet: Alexandra Osborne, Joel Fuller, Abigail Evans, James Lee. Producer: Charlie Barnett. Released on CD Summer Circle.
At Charlie Barnett’s home, left Charlie, right Martin
Comment Summer Circle
Composed in 2007, Martin Schlumpf’s Summer Circle is a string-quartet arrangement of his saxophone quartet Winter Circle of 1991. In his overall output, it is the piece that most clearly reveals the influence of so-called Minimal Music.
This is plain to hear in the opening section (Part A). Everything played by the two violins and the viola in this section derives from a minimum amount of material – a motivic kernel consisting of four cells in the order A1-A2-A1-A2′. In other words, the motivic kernel itself has a structure deriving from a primordial cell A, which is repeated with tiny variations as the piece progresses.
Here it is worth recalling Schlumpf’s own account of how, while still a boy, he was initiated into the art of composing by a radio broadcast on the music of Anton Webern. It did so by introducing the notion of a primordial cell (Urzelle) that lends such a distinctive character of “organic growth” to Webern’s late music (in the radio broadcast it was derived from Goethe’s theory of metamorphosis). In short, the music is boiled down to a minimal nucleus as its basic idea, which is then varied and developed with maximum imagination. The notion left Schlumpf spellbound.
The same notion occurs in this piece. True, the comparison between Webern’s austere twelve-tone music and Schlumpf’s heavily rhythmic tonal music may seem bold, but it should not be forgotten that Schlumpf, at the same time that he “discovered” Webern, was already active as a jazz bass player.
Another important aspect of Schlumpf’s musical language comes to the fore in the motivic kernel he chose for Summer Circle: the metrical structure of the cells consists of a figure of three eighth-notes at the beginning, followed by two or three figures of two eighth-notes. In this way the music starts to “breathe,” building on a regular pulse but subdividing it into irregular units.
How is the motivic kernel developed in Part A? Here two levels must be distinguished:
On the one hand, the four cells in the two violins and viola are initially separated by fairly long rests.
On the other hand, the intervals of time between the entrances of these three instruments are rigorously staggered. First, Violin I plays alone, followed successively by the other two instruments. One characteristic minimalist technique is that the cells in the motivic kernel overlap: the second instrument enters after an interval of three eighth-notes, followed by the third instrument at the same interval.
Finally, the two levels enter a process of compression. Both the lengths of the rests between the cells and the intervals of time between the entrances of the instruments become progressively shorter until, at the end, all are playing synchronously and there is no more room for additional rests between the cells. At the end of Part A we briefly hear, for the first time, the actual motivic kernel or theme in its primordial form.
What is the role of the cello in this opening section?
It is both a partner as well as an adversary and commentator. It is a partner in that it shares the metrical structure of the motivic kernel with the other instruments. It is an adversary in that, though it always plays synchronously with one of the other instruments, it constantly changes partners. Finally, it is a commentator in the sense that its contrary melodic motion plunges the tonally constant music of the upper voices into changing harmonic hues.
But it is not only in Part A that the motivic kernel plays a role with its minimalist antics. Expanded with counter-figures, transposed into new harmonic areas, diminuted and augmented in tempo, and partly transformed into triplets, the motivic kernel steps into the limelight over and over again in the manner of a rondo – in latter half of Part B as well as in Parts D and F.
In this way Winter Circle took on a new and lighter form with a partly new underlying harmonic conception, a different use of registers and articulation, and an expanded polymetric conception in certain passages. The result is Summer Circle, whose title reflects not only the date of its première but also its brighter and warmer aura.
In its temporal progress, the piece forms a circle in that the music heard at the beginning recurs in retrograde at the end. In symbolic terms, it thus traverses the human life-cycle: beginning with the tentative blossoming of life, proceeding through savage outbursts of strength, periods of consolidation, contemplation, and reflection, and various everyday influences from the outside, the piece finally comes full circle in a slow farewell. But a main focus of Summer Circle, interspersed with “fractures” and digressions, is the element of flux, the primal force of life, here captured in the piece’s minimalist motivic kernel, which recurs over and over again in ever-new variants.