Seals and Squeals at Syracuse University: ‘Polar Suite’ by Douglas Quin

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The Kronos Quartet gave Keith McMillen's wireless sensor K-Bows a workout in Douglas Quin's 'Polar Suite'
The Kronos Quartet gave Keith McMillen’s wireless sensor K-Bows a workout in Douglas Quin’s ‘Polar Suite’
By Barbara Jepson

Syracuse, NY: Writing music traditionally has been a solitary undertaking. A composer struggles to bring aesthetic ideas to life, whether aided by quill pen and manuscript paper or the latest computer software program. But in recent decades, some composers have explored more collaborative approaches. Members of new music collectives like Bang On a Can have jointly created major works. And Douglas Quin’s “Polar Suite,” which received its world premiere during a concert I heard last November at Syracuse University by the ever-venturesome Kronos Quartet, was imbued with cooperative spirit from the start.

K-Bow inventor Keith McMillen with early attempts (keithmcmillen.com)
McMillen with early K-Bow attempts (keithmcmillen.com)

The piece, written for string quartet and interactive electronics, utilized a MIDI controller called the K-Bow. Developed by instrument designer Keith McMillen, it is made of graphite and Kevlar, the same synthetic material used in bullet-proof vests. It looks like a standard bow except for a little black box — actually an enlarged “frog” — on the end that senses and wirelessly transmits performance data like bow speed, angle, or grip pressure to a software program. Sounds can be processed digitally or altered in real-time, modified by the gestures of the musicians. “What was exciting about working on ‘Polar Suite,'” said Quin in an interview, “was that we were all kind of holding hands together and jumping into the deep end of the pool.”

Composer Douglas Quin
Composer Douglas Quin

A faculty member at Syracuse, Quin experimented with different notational approaches, trying to find what worked best for the musicians. McMillen, whose electric instruments and audio equipment have been used by The Grateful Dead and Laurie Anderson, was consulted regularly. He and his staff attended rehearsals, noted problems, and rewrote software code to help make the performance more fluid for the K-Bow’s first ensemble, rather than solo, outing. Quartet members, wrote cellist Jeffrey Zeigler in an email, endeavored “to understand that what we were holding… was not a bow as we understand it, but an entirely new instrument.” As he stated on his blog recently, “You can use [the K-Bow] to trigger audio files. You can use it to sound like an electric guitar or use it as a pitch shifter…. Basically, this bow can do almost anything except make an espresso.”

The Kronos concert, part of the Quartet’s week-long residency at Syracuse, coincided with a five-day multi-media workshop for MCANA members. It was sponsored by the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and organized by Johanna Keller, founding director of the school’s Goldring Arts Journalism program. Participants attended discussions and other events, most notably, a viewing of Werner Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World,” which documents the  mix of curious characters working at a research station in Antarctica. Quin was the sound designer and mixer for the film. He has traveled widely, documenting the aural backdrops of the Amazon rain forest, the African savannah, an endangered bird species in New Caldonia, and more.

Quin in Antartica, among the seals (Jim Barker)
Quin in Antartica, among the seals (Jim Barker)

Like other works by Quin, “Polar Suite” used digitally processed samples derived from his own sound recordings, in this case, of Weddell and leopard seals, whales, wind storms and other natural phenomena. The 14-minute piece, commissioned by Kronos, integrated recorded materials, interactive electronics and acoustic instruments more imaginatively than typical soundscapes, which often merely juxtapose sound recordings with live playing. “A lot of what you were hearing,” said Quin, “were subtle transformations — the violin transforming a seal sound and being transformed by the seal sound…. They could slow it down or speed it up, depending on whether they were moving their K-Bows along the axis of the [instrument’s] neck, or running the length of the bow across the strings.”

'Polar Suite' was eventually recorded (dqmedia)
‘Polar Suite’ was eventually recorded (dqmedia.com)

Each of the suite’s three sections began with the sounds of traditional quartet instruments and lifted off from there — and not just figuratively. The most dramatic moments came in the final movement, when the musicians “played” their instruments with sweeping gestures well above the strings. “We all found this to be quite liberating.” wrote Zeigler.

Which is not to say that the premiere went off without any glitches. There was a suspenseful (Quin termed it “excruciating”) seven-minute delay before Quartet members could begin the piece because the Bluetooth connection between K-bows and laptops had been lost. But once the link was reestablished, everything appeared to work well. Kronos played with characteristic fluency and involvement, not just in “Polar Suite” but also in works by Steve Reich, Michael Gordon, Nicole Lizée, and others on the program.

Kronos typically tours the works it programs, but so far, additional performances of “Polar Suite” have not been scheduled. “Part of our challenge, collectively,” acknowledged Quin, “is to arrive at something that’s ‘tour-able’ and repeatable. And that raises bigger issues about contemporary repertoire that’s steeped in technology — a here today, gone tomorrow sort of thing.”

Indeed, like the squeals of seals, always recognizably species-specific yet drawing from a shifting vocabulary, “Polar Suite” will be somewhat different each time it is played because of its reliance upon performer gestures. In this way, Quin and his colleagues have deftly brought the changeable, transitory quality of nature into the concert hall.

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Editor’s Note: For a second article on the Syracuse institute, click here.

Kronos members at the time of the Syracuse visit - violist Hank Dutt, violinists John Sherba and David Harrington and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler (Michael Wilson)
Kronos at Syracuse – violist Hank Dutt, violinists John Sherba and David Harrington, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler (Michael Wilson)