On “Soft Power”

When Mark Steinberg, the Brentano Quartet’s first violinist, approached me about composing a piece for his quartet, I felt both enthusiastic and wary: there are few musical mediums more challenging, more revealing (or, in the end, more rewarding) than the string quartet. I hadn’t written anything for string quartet since high school, and I definitely didn’t want those pieces to see the light of day. So I suggested splitting our project in two: a small-scale piece of five or six minutes, followed by a full-length quartet the following year.

Soft Power is the first, smaller-scale piece, a string quartet in miniature. It is a kind of effortful meditation, premised on a simple gesture played by all four players: a single chord, played in a stuttering, receding gesture, recurs again and again, like a wave. The gesture feels, to me, like a deep, shuddering breath, a breath taken in an effort to calm oneself down. I wanted to create both an aura of tranquility and the sense that this tranquility is hard-won.

Hard-won, and impermanent: this peaceful aura is finally punctured by some outside force, and the four voices, which had existed in a fragile equilibrium, are sent scattering in a sudden landslide. I’m not sure what that outside force is; you, the listener, are free to fill in that blank for yourself. The piece ends, as many of my pieces do, with a question mark.

I’ve noticed several conflicting tendencies in my music. One side of my musical personality wants to burrow down a thorny, non-tonal rabbit hole; another is attracted to the luminous patience of so-called Minimalist music, or process music. But a third – and, for now, dominant – part of me wants to synthesize these conflicting tendencies. Soft Power is a small-scale enactment of that synthesis: for the piece’s first five minutes, we seem to be in the textural territory of process music, with familiar chords chanted over and over until (hopefully) they are defamiliarized. In its last minute, however, the tonal bubble is burst, and we’re in uncharted terrain. Maybe that’s the core of my “synthesis” pieces: these pieces feature an overarching drama, a narrative which contains both the construction of a “bubble,” a sanctuary or refuge, and the deconstruction of that sanctuary.