At 7 p.m. Friday in Karl Geiringer Hall (Music 1250), the UCSB Department of Music will offer a free concert by the Formalist Quartet (Andrew Tholl on violin, Mark Menzies on violin and viola, Andrew McIntosh and violin and viola, and Ashley Walters on cello).
The concert is sponsored by the university's Corwin Chair in Composition.
The quartet will perform Stravagante, e per il cimbalo cromatico (arranged by Alexander Moosbrugger) by Gianpetro del Buono (1641-57; both dates approximate), Two Little Quartets by Andrew Nathaniel McIntosh, Licht, Steg by Alexander Moosbrugger (born in 1972), Exercise III, from String Quartet Exercises Out of Songs by Christian Wolff (born in 1934), Fugue à 4 by Nicolas de Grigny (1672-1703), Images from a Sleepless Night by Nicholas Deyoe and For Two Violinists, Violist and Cellist by Wolff.
"What's in a name?" William Shakespeare's Juliet wants to know. In the case of the Formalist Quartet, I think there is quite a lot in it, some of it steeped in historical irony.
They are self-defined as "an ensemble dedicated to the performance of adventurous repertoire focusing on contemporary pieces and world premiers as well as exploring a diverse spectrum of early music and the standard repertoire," but one look at the program would tell us that. What about this "formalist" business?
It would help us, perhaps, to learn that the ensemble was founded Sept. 25, 2006, and that this date marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich. It might also help to recall that Shostakovich was twice accused of "formalism" by party apparatchiks — in 1936 and 1948. There are three quartets by Shostakovich among the 50-some works in the Formalist Quartet's current performing repertoire — where composers with household names like Shostakovich, Glass, Bach, Lassus and Janacek are scarce (though they do find room for Mahler's rarely-heard Piano Quartet) — so I think we can assume that the group approves of Shostakovich. If he is a formalist, then it must be a good thing.
In 1956, musicologist Leonard B. Meyer wrote that "... formalists would contend that the meaning of music lies in the perception and understanding of the musical relationships set forth in the work of art and that meaning in music is primarily intellectual, while the expressionist would argue that these same relationships are in some sense capable of exciting feelings and emotions in the listener." If I read this right, and Meyer is correct in his assumptions, then the accusations by the Soviet hacks sound like even more egregious nonsense than they usually managed to produce. Shostakovich not emotional?
This is what comes of judging art according to some fixed political ideology. Calling Shostakovich's music formalist — i.e., intellectual — is exactly the error of calling Schoenberg's music "abstract." All it means is that the accuser doesn't understand what he or she is hearing — usually because they won't let themselves understand. It's quite possible that this is, indeed, the lesson the Formalist Quartet wants us to take away from a meditation on their name.
As for the program, I could spend many thousands of words talking about the composers represented thereon, and you would be none the wiser until you actually heard the music. We just have to go and hear for ourselves what it's all about, musically.
But there is a very weird coincidence in the program that I will point out, for what it means in terms of 20th century German literature. The composer Wolff is the son of Helen and Kurt Wolff, probably the most important German literary publishers of their age, having published Franz Kafka, Robert Musil and Walter Benjamin. The coincidence, in fact, involves Musil, whose stature rests on two novels, the very short prep-school (gymnasium) story Young Törless and the very, very long (unfinished) The Man Without Qualities, a panoramic comedy of the last year of the Austrian Empire before the outbreak of World War I. I call it a "comedy" because it is mostly ironic and amusing, though there are some horrific things in it.
As the Austrian, German, Russian and Ottoman empires circle the drain of history in that last year, life goes on as before, with no one guessing that it is all about to vanish. In The Fall, Camus summed up modern man: "He fornicated, and read the newspapers." Musil's characters read the papers, too. One story has all Vienna in a tizzy, and it concerns the pursuit and capture of a sex-murderer — what we would now call a serial killer — with the unforgettable name of ... "Moosbrugger."
If that isn't a coincidence, and the quartet intended the resonance, then I have to say that they are altogether too scarily erudite.
This concert, like all Corwin concerts, is free, but Geiringer Hall isn't very large and it is set up in such a way as to preclude late seating without unspeakable rudeness.