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June 2, 2019

The Alexander String Quartet with Joyce Yang program on June 2 features something extra special—the debut of a newly-commissioned work by Samuel Adams specifically for the Alexander String Quartet and pianist Joyce Yang. To celebrate this historic occasion, we asked both Samuel Adams and ASQ cellist Sandy Williams to share their thoughts on how this new piece was created. Here's what they had to say:

Samuel AdamsI’ve never thought of myself as a radical artist. But I am interested in creating musical experiences that subtly go against the grain of our 21st-century experience. With this piece in particular, what felt necessary to me, was to create a patient work, a work that methodically and organically builds itself—the audience becoming a witness to the music’s emergence. Perhaps this is a kind of reaction to the new “attention economy,” where our minds are consistently assaulted with small, often meaningless pieces of information (and misinformation). Quintet with Pillars asks for a different kind of listening, one where you might enjoy leaning in a bit to find presence, not in big, grandiose gestures, but in the small repeated phrases that slowly evolve—not in clear declamatory melodies, but in a larger image created by the polyphony of all five voices groping for something larger than the sum of their parts. 

I cannot suggest how one should listen to a piece of music (that’s beyond my pay grade as a composer). But what I can tell you is how I created the music, and with this work, I was very experimental in my process. I started the work by creating Part II, which is an energetic, pulsing dance with drones, repeated gestures and unraveling counterpoint. I then “smashed” this movement and took it apart with digital software, collected all the musical fragments and re-positioned them in a much slower, contemplative Part I. I then created three “Pillars” that hold up Part I and II, much like the pillars of a suspension bridge: tall, robust fortifications that both provide stability and beauty to the overall structure. 

All this said, the work's aims ultimately fall in line with the other music on this program. Quintet with Pillars might not have a classical exterior, but it strives to communicate meaning through its form just as the chamber music of Mozart and Brahms does. It's my hope that, after hearing the final "pillar," you might ask: what has changed?

-- Samuel Adams

Sandy WilsonSoon after we first collaborated with Joyce Yang, now more than 10 years ago, we found that rather than the typical program of two string quartets and a piano quintet that we wanted to explore programs integrating the piano throughout. We have consistently had tremendous fun working and playing together - so much so that we began offering the unusual combination of all-collaborative programs together several seasons ago. The first was the Schumann and Brahms quintets with Schnittke sandwiched in the middle - then we added Shostakovich as the middle work. More recently we have experimented with the Mozart piano quartets and even the Dvorak Quintet – almost all of which works we have already documented in well received releases or are already recorded for imminent release. Along the way, though, we realized it was high time to commission a special work to commemorate our very unique relationship.

It was at the première of Sam Adams’ violin concerto that I became completely convinced that he should be the composer of our new contemporary and celebratory commission. The soulful and spiritual qualities of his writing combined with the extraordinary magical soundscape persuaded me completely and my colleagues and Joyce came on board without hesitation. We had known and followed Sam’s impressive emergence as a native Bay Area neighbor and came spontaneously to appreciate the uniquely visceral and probing qualities in his scores, sometimes deeply contemplative and static but then also, scintillating, vivacious and joyously playful. These fantastic qualities are difficult to achieve and combine in a cohesive narrative thread and yet, it is something we feel Sam has accomplished in his score for us. It is our constant challenge in his highly original score for otherwise traditional piano-quintet to maintain the spell unbroken. At more than 25 minutes, this is a long composition, but it affords an amazingly colorful and we hope inspiring journey for the attentive and suggestible listener. We are still learning how to manage, balance, and fuse the many and sometimes seemingly disparate elements into the complex collage. Thankfully Sam has proven a patient and adept collaborator even in our preparatory work together, learning with us and adapting the score here and there when necessary as we all figured out how to make it even more beautiful. 

We remain profoundly indebted to the Mondavi Center at UC Davis for generously participating without hesitation in the commissioning of what we hope will prove a landmark and enduring new work for Piano Quintet. We trust that together we may help launch it into the standard repertoire for this instrumentation, an abiding musical touchstone for future generations from California at the beginning of the 21st century.

-- Sandy Wilson