Pacifica Quartet Was Midwife For Fierce New Work

Shulamit Ran's new string quartet, 'Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory,' is being introduced by the Pacifica Quartet in the U.S. and Europe. (Valerie Booth)
Shulamit Ran’s new composition ‘Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory,’ is being introduced by the Pacifica Quartet.
Upcoming concerts are scheduled in the U.S. and Europe. (Photo by Valerie Booth)
By Nancy Malitz

For many years, the Pacifica Quartet has helped Israeli-American composer Shulamit Ran usher in new compositions by her graduate students at the University of Chicago, where Ran is a distinguished professor and the Pacifica musicians are artists-in-residence. It’s hardly surprising that the ensemble would eventually commission a string quartet from her. But the Pacifica was flabbergasted when Ran’s Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory arrived so soon.

Felix Nussbaum's self-portrait. (Felix Nussbaum Haus)
Felix Nussbaum’s self-portrait. (Felix Nussbaum Haus)

“We assumed it would be coming a few years down the road, maybe a movement at a time,” said Masumi Per Rostad, the Pacifica’s Japanese-Norwegian violist, of the suspenseful and emotionally charged composition that took as its point of inspiration the paintings of Felix Nussbaum, who died at Auschwitz at 39. “And all of a sudden there it was, eight months ahead of time, the whole quartet complete as a unit.” Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory gives the impression of something written in white heat, as if projecting the mentality of one who had no time for anything but the truth, as time itself ran out.

While Ran’s work is not specifically programmatic, it expresses the unmistakable emotional arc that parallels the German-Jewish experience of Nussbaum’s era, from relative normalcy through intimidation, gothic absurdity and shock, leading to a grave contest between terror and resolve, and a final catharsis of extraordinary sadness and impact. The tense battle between panic and persistence, which constitutes the third movement, is the beating heart of the work and takes its title from Nussbaum’s words: “If I must perish, do not let my paintings die.”

The Pacifica previewed the work in Toronto last May at the 21C Music Festival and took it to Tokyo’s Suntory Hall in June. I heard the U.S. premiere Oct. 12 at the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus, where the vigorous and assured foursome reprised as an encore Ran’s second movement, a scherzo called “Menace” that doffs its cap to Shostakovich. The quartet will headline its fall tour with additional performances at Indiana University in Bloomington on Nov. 3, and Alice Tully Hall in New York on Nov. 7. (As quartet-in-residence at IU, the Pacifica members mentor 35 student ensembles.) European performances are scheduled for mid-March at the Auditorio Nacional De Musica in Madrid, Wigmore Hall in London, and the Stadthalle in Aalen, Germany. Most of these presenters are members of the consortium of commissioners called Music Accord and consider that the premiere is a rolling event, shared by all.

The Pacifica Quartet commissioned the work from Shulamit Ran. (Saverio Truglia)
The Pacifica Quartet commissioned the work from Shulamit Ran. (Saverio Truglia)

No work is experienced in a vacuum, and my recollection of Ran’s quartet was vivid when I attended the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams, raw with controversy still. The two composers are very different; Ran’s style is untouched by minimalism and bears a deep connection to the Second Viennese School even at this distance. The resemblance that struck me was the specific tone of her last movement, its vastness and stillness somehow still holding forth fragile promise, and Adams’ “Chorus of the Exiled Jews,” set to the brutally spare poetry of Alice Goodman. As staged by Tom Morris, the sequence shows the exhausted refugees, their hides “worn thin, covered with scars and wrinkles,” the life nearly beat out of them, investing in a future they resolve to force out of themselves by planting olive saplings, one by one, in the desert soil.

To look at the opening of Ran’s final movement, “Shards, Memory,” as written is almost like seeing ice on the page. The notes are very long, the pace extremely slow, and the individual voices, when they at last appear, seem to float on a bed of nothingness. The Pacifica is a youthful, muscular ensemble, capable of explosive sound and speed, exacting at even the fastest tempo. (The full force of their virtuosity was apparent in the second “Razumovsky” quartet by Beethoven, also on the program, as they ripped through the Russian theme in the Scherzo and let loose like several multiples of themselves in the presto alla breve Finale.) But here in Ran’s quartet the Pacifica was in full poetry and restraint, an evocation of the most mysterious and delicate sort, in which their maturity as an artistic ensemble was apparent.

Nussbaum at work. (Felix Nussbaum Haus)
Nussbaum at work. (Felix Nussbaum Haus)

Despite the quite specific inspiration of Nussbaum’s paintings, Ran said Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory should be able to speak independently of its background and exist as pure music, a hypothesis she was surprised to find immediately tested at Toronto’s 21C Festival, where, in contrast to Chicago, there was no opportunity to prepare the audience.

“The performance was positioned in a rather unusual post-concert setting that was part of a weekend-long festival,” Ran recalled in a telephone conversation from her studio. “A large room had been transformed into a kind of a nightclub setting and you were encouraged to go the bar and buy a drink and sit down and relax. When my work was introduced, it was, ‘So glad to have you here, and we have this work that you will be hearing, and the composer is here,’ and that was about it.

“And I thought, OK, not even the name of the piece is known, nor anything about me, and it is too dark to read, and the setting is casual, so this is a true test and this is going to happen — right now! But as soon as the musicians started playing, it got totally quiet for the next 22 minutes. At the end of it I thought, ‘OK, They got it.’”

Ran was awarded the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for a luminous work called simply Symphony that was premiered by Gary Bertini with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  In that same decade she served residencies with both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, while Daniel Barenboim was music director, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, for whom she wrote the opera Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk). She began setting music to Hebrew poetry when she was a child of seven in Israel, and Jewish themes appear fairly regularly in her compositions. In her current position at the University of Chicago, she also functions as artistic director of Contempo, a longstanding contemporary chamber music series for which the Pacifica frequently performs as part of its arrangement with the university.

Pacifica violinist Simin Ganatra said that she admired Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory immediately and that the quartet had only “semi-learned” it when it seemed a natural thing to pull the composer into the process. “I said, ‘Hey, we are rehearsing it this week and would you mind stopping by?’” Ganatra recalled. “We don’t feel like we have to have something polished the first time she hears it, because we know each other so well, which is really great for us. As a quartet, the four of us spend so much time guessing a composer’s intentions, thinking about what to bring out, deciding what should be primary, that it was valuable to have that fifth person in the discussion — and it actually was a discussion, with her. She remained open in the sense that we could talk about the character of the opening of the (ironic) second movement, for example — whether it should be dry and sarcastic right away or have a little bit of ambiguity to it.”

The Pacifica musicians had also worked closely with Elliott Carter while preparing to perform and record his five string quartets in the decade before his death, in 2012, at the age of 103. Spending that time with him was crucial in getting the music right, Ganatra said: “His scores looked so thorny to us that we were surprised to learn there was a lot of it he wanted light. It was incredibly helpful to play the quartets for him. His facial gestures were always changing. It was fun just to watch him as he listened.”

Rostad remembered the Carter project as mind-bending “total badness. We had decided to take on the complete cycle, and there was only one performing arts center willing to do something as crazy as that, and that was George Steele at Columbia University, and basically we did nonstop Carter, eight hours a day for two months. At the end of it all, we went to rehearse a Mozart quartet, and it was the strangest sounding thing to us. I remember thinking, ‘What is this music?’

“That experience shaped our approach to all period-style genres. At the end of the day, there is a common thread of musical thinking, a logic of expression, and you begin to realize how abstract all music is. When you are playing great contemporary music and you go back to other music afterwards, you hear it differently, with slightly fresher ears. It changes the way you treat your harmonic language, your rhythm, everything.”

Between Ran and the Pacifica Quartet there is a shared understanding — Rostad called it a “shared musical language” — that extends back 15 years to when the Pacifica began its residency at the university. In work-shopping Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory, the quartet spent many hours with the composer, examining different bowing techniques, experimenting with textures, changing things out here and there. “We would do something slightly different and it would change the way Shulamit heard the piece herself,” Rostad added. “She was so flexible that it really felt as if the work was a living organism coming into being.”

Ran concurred, adding that the ability “to work with live musicians, and to be able to develop a way of communicating with them, has been one of the great joys of my life. When we can reach the level that they are able to sense what it is that I as a composer am after, to help me as a composer find my truth, so to speak, it’s almost like alchemy.”

Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.

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