Philip Glass, Arthur Kampela, and Claude Debussy all in one place? A momentous occasion, to be sure—or rather, a momentous quartet.
The Momenta Quartet’s debut album “Similar Motion” features works by all three of these influential and idiosyncratic contemporary composers. And while on the surface these composers have almost nothing in common, hearing their pieces in succession reveals surprising connections. Each composer creates his own unique and utterly mesmerizing sound world from relatively minimal musical materials.
Additional connections are revealed through the mission and vision of the Momenta Quartet, which takes its name from the plural form of momentum—suggesting four individuals in motion toward a common goal. The group is comprised of violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Adda Kridler, violist Stephanie Griffin, and cellist Michael Haas.
Known for its eclectic and adventurous programming, the Momenta Quartet is committed to celebrating and broadening the repertoire and responsibilities of a 21st century string quartet. They accomplish this not only through championing contemporary works, but also through collaborating with living composers, serving residencies at schools around the country, advocating for the musical avant-garde of developing nations, and most recently, through their newest annual tradition: the Momenta Festival.
The quartet’s new album is another manifestation of this mission, highlighting the depth and breadth of contemporary classical sound worlds too seldom explored.
The first of these sound worlds is Glass’s 1969 composition “Music in Similar Motion.” Originally composed for his band, the Philip Glass Ensemble, “Music for Similar Motion” is an open score which can be performed by any group of instruments—on this album, Momenta presents the first ever all-string recording of the iconic work.
For a composer who once spent three years studying counterpoint with the French music instructor extraordinaire Nadia Boulanger, Glass does something surprisingly counterintuitive in this piece: he has all five parts moving in the same direction, and in constant rhythmic unison. Violinist Cyrus Beroukhim joins the Momenta Quartet to bring the piece to life in all its shimmering string glory.
Informed by his interpretation of rhythmic structure in Indian music, the score consists of 34 numbered melodic fragments with an indeterminate number of repeats cued by one of the performers—thus allowing a flexible duration and a refreshing sense of freedom for the musicians to lose themselves in the dizzying trance. Momenta performs the work with precision and drama, crafting an infectious 15-minute homage to the master of minimalism.
The piece is followed by a much more thematically complex (though much lesser-known) work: Kampela’s 1998 composition “Uma Faca Só Lâmina” (“A Knife All Blade”). Originally composed as part of Kampela’s doctoral dissertation at Columbia University, the piece’s title takes its name from a poem by the Brazilian constructivist poet João Cabral de Melo Neto.
Kampela expresses the visceral urgency and poignant sorrow of this famous poem through his use of extended techniques and cluttered musical textures. The piece is something like organized chaos: claustrophobic, overwhelming, and inescapable—but at the same time unimaginably meticulous.
In fact, the score for the piece begins not with the music itself but with three pages of detailed performance notes. Within the piece’s five continuous movements, Kampela leaves no musical idea unexplored: quarter tones, harmonics, extended techniques, bouncing bows, left-hand pizzicato, percussive elements, metric modulation, and a whole array of new articulatory techniques make up just a few of the piece’s musical idiosyncrasies—and Momenta doesn’t miss a beat.
Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10 provides a melodic reprieve from the intensity and rhythmic showmanship of Kampela’s piece, though the piece is no less virtuosic in its textural effects. Written in 1893, the piece was one of Debussy’s first major successes as a composer, showcasing his unparalleled ear for timbral color. With a mere four string instruments, he manages to craft a shimmering soundscape filled with glistening colors and vivid textures.
And although each of the four movements takes on a different character, all of them are connected through reoccurring musical themes and broader influences, such as the art of the French Impressionists and the music of the Javanese gamelan. Momenta is equally at-home in these softly blended sonic landscapes, gliding through each movement with graceful fingers and heartfelt expression.
In the end, Glass, Kampela, and Debussy represent three very different realms of classical music. But as contemporary innovators and artists, each composer crafts his own enigmatic and idiosyncratic sound world, fully immersing the listener in the music of the moment.