By Maria Nockin | Fanfare Magazine
SUMMER String Quartet: The Garden of Forking Paths
Kalmia String Quartet
ALBANY 1340 (56:29)
Joseph Summer, who was born in 1956, is a prolific American composer who started out playing the French horn. He also studied composition with Czech-born KarelHusa who was teaching at Oberlin College, a school well known for its music curriculum. It was Husa who asked him to decide between the horn and composition. He opted for the latter, and since then has composed myriad pieces in various genres. Summer’s music is often performed at The Shakespeare Concerts in Massachusetts and in the United States Virgin Islands. The Shakespeare Concerts have premiered over two dozen of his Oxford Songs, and Summers’s three-act opera Hamlet will be premiered there. Summer has also written operas on material from Boccaccio’s Decameron. His C-Major String Quartet, The Garden of Forking Paths, is based on stories by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges who called his 1941 collection of short stories El jardín de senderosque se bifurcan. Its title story is about an impossible book and a mythical labyrinth. The whole collection consists of eight tales, from which Summer selected four to use for his quartet. The first of the piece’s five movements tells of the fictional 20th-century writer, Pierre Menard, who tried to do more than merely translate Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, but all he really did was to copy it. In Pierre Menard autordelQuijote, Borges explains why Menard’s identical Quixote text is superior to that of Cervantes. Summer’s melodic music has a rhythmic underpinning, but it is not at all Spanish. It is, however, thoroughly charming and a little bit sad, as is the idea of Quixote tilting at windmills. The second, entitled Shakespeare’s Memory, deals with an Argentine author who acquires the bard’s memories. It is one of the two movements that does not refer to Borges’s works. Here, Summer combines William Byrd’s Oxford March with a tango. Summer has spent much of his composition time writing music to Shakespeare’s works. It’s a fun combination.
In the text on which the third movement is based, LaudatoresTemporiActi, Borges describes an ancient Asian sect which believes that the past and present are not at all connected. Summer writes this movement in a fascinating, but deliberately artificial and antique style. The violins start with a beautiful, plaintive tune. Later we hear wonderfully inviting music that has an impressionistic aspect. It’s lush and opulent like a jungle of huge flowers. The fourth movement, An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain, brings us back to the works of the Argentine writer. The literature consists of reviews of three strange pieces of fiction by a very unusual author. Summers paints it as a totally reframed minuet. This passionate music invites you to dance and makes you feel you cannot refuse. It propels all who hear it into Summer’s and Borges’s fantastic world. The fifth and final movement is based on Borges The Library of Babel, the tale of a man, perhaps Borges himself, who becomes a caretaker in the Library of Infinity. Its theme and variations format shows how music can be generated in many different ways from one single piece. Here the members of the quartet get to show off some of their excellent technique. All the strands of this piece are neatly tied together in a full blooded finale which lets you know you just heard something new, different, and quite memorable. I really enjoyed this disc. Its sound is clear and a bit on the dry side, but still excellent.