Slow Food For Thought: Late Beethoven Quartet Mulled At A Snail’s Pace

Violinists Lara St. John and Miranda Cuckson, violist Milan Milisavljević, and cellist Jeffrey Ziegler recording ‘Slow Beethoven’ at National Sawdust in Brooklyn (Photo by Steve Lewis)

DIGITAL REVIEW — When the Slow Food movement began in the 1980s to counter the rise of fast food, its mission to promote local produce also drew attention to the risks of their extinction. For the creators behind Slow Beethoven — composer/sound artists Bruce Odland and James Paul — the threat of Beethoven being extinguished is probably null and void. According to Bachtrack, the largest classical music listings website, Beethoven (alongside Mozart, Bach, Brahms, and Schubert) was one of the most-performed composers in 2022. So what is this Slow Beethoven, and why revive Beethoven when the composer remains in favor and clearly doesn’t need protection?

Slow Beethoven is a recording project — a sonic journey­, a composition­­­, an exploration of reverberation — that repurposes the opening fugue of Beethoven’s 14th String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, for a newly transformed iteration.

According to Odland, who conceived the project, the impetus is “to find the soul of Beethoven, to shed the cultural layers of association that have become attached to his music and lay bare some essence. So often now Beethoven is referenced rather than purely perceived.”

How did Beethoven, Odland, and Paul find their path in this project and how were our perceptions of Beethoven’s music enhanced? 

With this vision, producers Odland and Paul commandeered violinists Lara St. John and Miranda Cuckson, violist Milan Milisavljević, and cellist Jeffrey Ziegler to gather at National Sawdust in Brooklyn to perform the work. Two thousand miles away in Rangely, Colo., the sound artists at the Tank Center for Sonic Arts — an empty, disused, seven-story steel water tank — relayed the ensemble’s recording of the work back into their headphones; that is, the sounds of their performance as it was resonating in the Tank’s sonic environment. Since the deep reverbs at the Tank Center sustain sound for up to 40 seconds, the live performance of Beethoven’s C-sharp minor fugue needed to be slowed to 1/7th its normal tempo for the sound to degrade and for the individual lines to voice. Instead of the normal duration of seven minutes, the new Beethoven/Odland/Paul remix extends to 44 minutes.

From the onset, Op. 131 is known for its mystical qualities. The opening fugue is one of the most lyrical and emotionally intense fugues you are likely to encounter, with Beethoven’s rhetorical lines transpiring as a chorus of voices. The fugue also contains an atypical number of suspensions. All these traits forecast an ideal template. In Slow Beethoven, Beethoven’s utterances are expanded and elongated to varying degrees of cognition of the original score. Depending on your own familiarity with the work, the result either fills you with fuzziness or fervor. Is Slow Beethoven appropriation or honorific?

The recording was made by sending the string quartet’s performance through the resonant Tank Center for the Sonic Arts in Rangely, Colo. (Photo by Kim Smith)

The answer is irrelevant. Understanding and knowing Beethoven’s quartet may deepen our intellectual reckoning of Odland/Paul’s piece, but at its heart Slow Beethoven is an aesthetic experience to be savored by senses. Lovers of Arvo Pärt will find themselves immediately attracted to the piece. Slow Beethoven captures an elegant balance of simplicity, austerity, and harmonic interest redolent of the idiosyncratic Estonian composer. Connoisseurs of ambient music will probably find the work too complex as relaxing background music but will find beauty in the epic largess of the reverberations and the inherent stillness.

But regardless of whether you fall on the side of Pärt, Beethoven, or ambience, Slow Beethoven is ultimately compelling and convincing. What is also apparent is that this retro-Futurism experiment by the Tank Center allows us to value the music in much the same way that the Slow Food movement asked us to consider our food.