(From November 15th-20th, I had the opportunity to participate in David Lang’s: “Creating New Music” workshop as an arts journalist. Since I don’t currently have my own blog, Joelle Zigman agreed to let me guest post on Nuts and Bolts Music. Thanks Joelle!)
New Music, New Voices: Robert Honstein and the Mivos Quartet
by Jane Mitchell
Composer David Lang despises the belief that success can be achieved by pushing your colleagues “under a bus.” He made this expressly clear from the beginning of Creating New Music, a six-day workshop he designed to encourage open dialogue and collaboration between new music ensembles and young composers. I have been following one of the ensemble-composer pairs selected for this workshop: the Mivos Quartet and Robert Honstein.
I joined the Mivos quartet last Saturday for a late afternoon rehearsal of Arctic, Honstein’s new piece. The Mivos were jovial and relaxed, despite being observed by two members of International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), three cameramen, and a bright blue cello case. “It’s way less cramped than where we usually rehearse,” explained the cellist, Mariel Roberts. (The quartet takes turns hosting rehearsals in their NYC apartments. And when they are on tour? “Oh, they always put us in some cave,” quips the violist, Victor Lowrie.)
Arctic is inspired by a pair of photographs from Chris McCaw’s Sunburn series, a study of the effect of over-exposure on photo paper. In the giant, twelve panel works, the sun has seared its way across the sky, creating a sine wave over a barren, faded Alaskan landscape. Honstein began his compositional process by devising a structure: he would juxtapose two movements, the first energetic and compact, the second sparse and expansive. Four weeks later, he completed “Midnight Sun,” depicting the perpetual sunlight of arctic summer, and “Polar Night,” depicting the unending darkness of arctic winter.
“Midnight Sun” is fast and bright; dance rhythms churn underneath searing harmonics, creating a sparkling momentum. Sudden silences riddle the score; they happen without warning, jolting and suspending the listener. Each time the music resumes, it becomes louder and more complex. By the end, the second violin and the viola have abandoned exact pitches and begun sliding upward while the first violin hurls her bow across open strings and the cellist pounds out eighth notes. The score encourages them to “gradually become as loud as possible.”
Which the Mivos did, impressively, at their Saturday rehearsal. When silence returned, Jacob Greenberg, ICE pianist, posed a question. “I’m wondering about the expressive purposes of the pauses. Should we feel anticipation?”
Honstein replied, “We should feel like you turn out the lights.”
Mariel agreed. “Yes, it’s as if suddenly it doesn’t exist anymore—and then it’s back.” Olivia De Prato, first violinist, wondered how this translated into their physical movements. “Should it look like a freeze?” They all nodded. Yes, definitely.
“Polar Night,” the second movement, is a mesmerizing blend of emptiness and emotion. It begins untethered, with floating swaths of color, the second violin an icy shadow trailing the first. Bows skitter across strings, rhythm breaks down; the texture is scratched and torn and interrupted. The volume builds; the upper strings strain at the top of their range before returning to quiet resignation. An aimless glissando, the repetition of a subtle Morse code, and the piece fades away. The violist supports the first violin; he is suspended, crystalline, far far above.
As they rehearsed “Polar Night,” the Mivos discussed logistics. The dry squeaking of four rubber mutes descending on four wooden bridges in what should have been a serene silence had disrupted an important transition. This needed to be solved. “Maybe we could put our mutes on earlier—and not at the same time?” suggested Olivia. Honstein made a note in the score. He also had a suggestion for the group. “The two glaciers are not in line,” he said, of the opening, and the Mivos laughed, because this was a poetic way of asking them to be more rhythmically accurate.
The Mivos are not bothered by criticism, poetic or otherwise. “Love what you do, and be really good, and be nice, that’s success. It’s not about having the best website…It’s possible to get distracted, and that’s a very pointless thing to do,” explained Victor, Olivia, and second violinist Josh Modney. They tend to finish each other’s sentences.
Next week, the Mivos will release their new album, Reappearances. Next month, Robert Honstein will return to Yale to complete his D.M.A degree, presenting a recital and braving hours of comprehensive exams. And after that? Next year, they plan to perform an hour-long Arctic cycle, including new Honstein pieces inspired by the Sunburn series, in a gallery installation surrounded by Chris McCaw’s work.