Jan/Feb 2005

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

Elemental Currents

George Tsontakis. Four Symphonic Quartets.
James DePreist, conductor.
Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo.
Koch International 3-7384-2-H1. New York, 1997.


George Tsontakis composed the four large movements of Four Symphonic Quartets as follows: 1. Other Echoes (1996), 2. Perpetual Angelus (1992), 3. The Dove Descending (1995) and 4. Winter Lightning (1993). The title of each is based on one of The Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot, but not in the order of his cycle of meditative poems. 1. Other Echoes comes from "Burnt Norton" (Eliot's number 1); Perpetual Angelus is from "The Dry Salvages" (Eliot number 3); The Dove Descending is from "Little Gidding" (Eliot's number 4); and Winter Lightening is from "East Coker" (Eliot's number 2).

Tsontakis does not attempt to set Eliot to music, either impressionistically or programmatically. In fact, he says he scarcely consulted the poems while writing his pieces. Instead, he sought to create aural landscapes that were somehow Eliotic in expanse and depth. This is much the same relationship as between Eliot's poems and the late Beethoven String Quartets, from which the poet sought to create in language a depth of meditative introspection and breadth comparable to the composer of the previous century. Thus Tsontakis brings full the inspirational circle from profound composer to profound poet to profound composer-each shifting medium and genre while still maintaining the spiritual landscape of his model.

Like Eliot, who saw his poems as a single cycle, Tsontakis intends Four Symphonic Quartets to be heard as a single large symphonic work, even though the four pieces had separate commissions and first performances. Again, this parallels the publication history of Eliot's poem.

Whatever one may think of Eliot's craving for spiritual absolutes and his sometimes slippery mysticism, The Four Quartets are one of the most aurally sonorous and reverberant works of 20th century poetry in the English language. And any reader who has read them with absorption aloud must have found their rhythms and phrases impressed on the aural memory indelibly.

If Eliot sought to recreate a Beethoven sound world in language, Tsontakis surely must have had Eliot's rhythms and reverberant phrases in his ears as he wrote his music.

Tsontakis is a composer of tremendous technical integrity, not to mention skill. He stands alone among current American composers for this integrity. By which I mean he approaches each work with full creative commitment. Nothing is mere make-work, mere experiment. Each work is as if whatever he needs to say at that time, he has an ethical commitment to say fully and without compromise. In this respect he harks back to composers of the previous generation like Roger Sessions and Leon Kirchner.

Part of his technical skill is an ability to build from small motifs and to transform them endlessly so that they are never merely variations, but always re-envisioned. In this respect, he seems almost to invite comparison to Beethoven.

Each of the four sections of Four Symphonic Quartets, as I said, grounds itself in an Eliotic phrase and perhaps tonality. I find each also to be grounded on a particular elemental gesture, such that its transformations of its spare motifs takes the listener's awareness deeper and deeper into that element's elementality.

Other Echoes is all about kinetic energy. Its capacity to shift and flow forward, its terrible and fascinating on-goingness. This is different from velocity or speed, which dazzle. Tsontakis's energy instead immerses the ear and rides it.

Perpetual Angelus is tidal. This is an energy too, but one whose folds and submersions mask themselves as stillness and calm. What folly! There is nothing static or still in this music which again and again tugs the ear's most hidden undertows to froth up plashes of spray and light.

The Dove Descending is Other Echoes' exact opposite. Not because it is calm, but because its energy is all in potentiality-all in reserve and conservation and expectation. This is why Tsontakis says that even though it is the gentlest and most consoling movement it also hides a kind of terror. How it is able to hold potentiality together for such length without collapsing into exhaustion or erupting into climax is the mystery the ear revisits with each re-hearing.

Finally, Winter Lightening is the unbearable amassing of memory itself. Not as Proust would have it, the sudden inexplicable immersive recollection of a lost past, but the accumulation of time that is what experience is, both in Kundera's sense an unbearable lightness, and as an almost unendurable imassiveness. And as such, this elemental, even monumental, force of memory builds its movement to one of the most overwhelming climaxes of all American symphonic literature. The ear seems to be confronted, in Tsontakis' 1993 moment of the music's origin, with the weight of the 20th century, not as eulogy, not as outrage, but simply as the weight the ear learns to endure as the elementality of time and memory accumulates.

As the earth's conscious inhabitants strive to come to grips with its capacity to surge and heave with elemental fury, from the human perspective, our year-end and unmitigated sorrow almost drowns the cries and crisis of Iraq. Along with unprecedented financial aid to the tsunami's victims, the rest of us need to find consolation in the oncoming months and years, for this is our earth and the victims are our planetary fellows, and we who survive bear a weight of knowledge no generation before us has borne in quite this enormity. I can think of no better way than for symphony orchestras to take up regular performances of this remarkable work.

Until then I hope readers of this column might find this CD and take it unto their hearts. This is what I offer for New Years 2005-the grim one!


Previous Piece Next Piece