by Maggie Molloy
“I got piano lessons when I was 5 years old from the widow of the town doctor in a little farm town in Iowa,” said composer Ken Benshoof. “I would go there after school, she would give me bread with brown sugar and butter, and we would have a music lesson.”
And it was there, in America’s heartland, that Benshoof got his very early start to a career in music composition.
“It wasn’t very long before I felt that the pieces she was asking me to play were not very good, and that I probably could write better pieces,” he laughed. “So, I found a piece of paper and drew some lines on it and started putting notes. I’m sure whatever I wrote wasn’t any better than what I was playing, but the impulse to make the world better by writing a better piece stayed with me for my whole life.”
In many ways, that’s the dream—finding one’s passion, pursuing it with unbridled determination and dedication, creating a life for oneself, and maybe even making the world a better place along the way. In fact, some would even consider that to be the American Dream.
Benshoof is just one of four American composers featured on the Seattle-based Saint Helens String Quartet’s debut album, “American Dreams.” Comprised of violinists Stephen Bryant and Adrianna Hulscher, violist Michael Lieberman, and cellist Paige Stockley, the quartet is committed to exploring adventurous and uncharted musical territory.
The modern-day musical pioneers’ latest creative endeavor explores the beautiful and bold diversity of American music, mixing contemporary classical with elements of folk tunes, blues and jazz grooves, American spirituals, and more. The album was recorded and produced at Jack Straw Cultural Center, the Northwest’s only nonprofit multidisciplinary audio arts center.
“What we found attractive about [these composers] is that their music is warm, it’s approachable, it doesn’t turn you off,” cellist Paige Stockley said of the album. “It’s not hard to grasp. It helps audiences just immediately connect to the music because it’s heartfelt and it’s beautiful. One of the rules that I use when I’m choosing repertoire is ‘Is this music that I love? Is this music that I want to hear? Is this music that feeds my soul?’”
The album’s title track is Grammy Award-winning composer Peter Schickele’s five-movement String Quartet No. 1, “American Dreams.” The piece evokes images of rural America through an adventurous combination of jazz and Appalachian folk elements over waltzing basslines, rustic melodies, sustained harmonics, and energetic syncopations.
“This piece is so beautiful because it has birds at dawn, it has barn dances, it has Indian chants played by the viola,” Stockley said of the piece. “If you can picture American Midwest and the wheat fields at 4 o’clock in the morning and birds chirping and the distant, fading sound of a barn dance—that’s ‘American Dreams’ quartet.”
Ken Benshoof’s “Swing Low” is similarly nostalgic. Based on the historic spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the work is comprised of eight very short pieces, each about one minute in length. The work makes use of folk-like pentatonic melodies in both major and minor harmonic contexts, with the original melody peeking through in ever-changing shapes and structures. Benshoof uses a colorful palette of textures and timbral details to explore the deceptively buoyant tune’s dismal subject matter.
The work is followed by Janice Giteck’s somber and lyrical one-movement quartet, “Where Can One Live Safely, Then? In Surrender.” Based on a cantus firmus by Johannes Fux, the piece portrays a sense of calm yearning, making use of the Dorian mode in a meditation on the unraveling of Western culture.
Bern Herbolsheimer’s five-movement “Botanas” explores a very different perspective: the piece is based on the rich melodies, flavorful food, and exquisite culture of the Yucatán region of Mexico.
“I always have been interested in the similarities between food, cooking, eating, creating music, and consuming it with our ears,” Herbolsheimer said of his inspiration for the piece. “So I thought I would combine each movement with a traditional Mayan melody and the name of a traditional Mayan botana or appetizer.”
From spicy salsa to roasted squash seed humus to traditional tamales eaten on the Day of the Dead, each piece has its own lively and distinct flavor. And while each one may be just a little tidbit of flavorful timbres and textures, together the piece is an entire feast of dynamic colors and characters.
The work is followed by Giteck’s “Ricercare (Dream Upon Arrival),” a slow and dreamy piece with lines of poetic counterpoint softly weaving in and out of each other.
Benshoof follows with his “Diversions” for violin and piano, performed by violinist Stephen Bryant and pianist Lisa Bergman. The six short movements include a variety of folk and blues elements which give each a warm, whimsical, and often playful character.
The final piece on the album is Benshoof’s “Remember,” a short, sweet, and hopelessly heartfelt piece inspired by the classic American folk song “Get along Home, Cindy.” (You know the one: “I wish I was an apple / Hangin’ on a tree / And every time my Cindy’d pass / She’d take a bite of me.”)
“The piece has a rich, romantic feel about it,” Benshoof said. “There’s a warmth in it and there is a little bit of ‘biting the apple’ and there’s a little bit of some third thing in there which I’m not going to try to describe.”
Perhaps that third thing might be wishing or wistfulness, melancholy longing or maybe even unrequited love—but whatever it is, it’s certainly nostalgic.
“‘American Dreams’ captures that early pioneer spirit,” Stockley said of the album, “The America that we wish we still had, or maybe we never even had it at all, but that feeling of hope and nostalgia, memory and warmth—and looking to a bright future.”