Portfolio Project: The Ciompi Quartet commissions Duke Graduate Composers 2020

In the summer of 2020, the Ciompi Quartet commissioned a unique project from four composers in Duke Music’s graduate program. The parameters of the commission were unorthodox: to find a solution to the compositional and performing challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic by creating short works that could be practiced and recorded remotely by each member of the quartet. Although the members were ultimately able to record together in Baldwin Auditorium in November/December 2020, the pieces submitted by James Budinich, Ryan Harrison, James Chu, and Maximiliano Amici demonstrate creative solutions to the challenge of creating works for musicians who are not present in the same space.

The four works will be presented as a video premiere in the Best of Biddle virtual series on Friday, April 2 at 7:30 EDT. 

James Budinich, Rotation Study

James Budinich by Elena Sippel

James Budinich found inspiration in the work of Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, who he is researching for his PhD dissertation article. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s idea of organizing notes into timed sections, rather than beats, seemed to Budinich to be a good way to ensure the performers stayed together as they performed remotely. “For Rotation Study, I created a proportional notation system where each system lasts 15 seconds – the four quartet members form a kind of kaleidoscopic pattern each system, slowing shifting their notes in each line,” Budinich said. “Each performer uses a stop watch to keep track of their timing and starts a new section every 15 seconds, but they are freed from keeping a strict beat. Because of this indeterminate nature, the work can be performed virtually through video conferencing software, outdoors with each player distanced spatially (following social distancing guidelines), or live in a traditional concert setting.”

View the score for Rotation Study

“This commission was a very generous opportunity provided by the Ciompi Quartet,” Budinich said, but he feels the benefits extend far beyond the support he received last summer when many funding sources were put on hold because of Covid-19. Experimenting with Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s ideas about proportional notation has given him greater insight into the composer’s works. “I wouldn’t have tried this notation system if I hadn’t had the pandemic to deal with,” he said. “I’m really pleased with the result; the quartet sounded great in the recording session.”

Ryan Harrison, Disconnected

Like James Budinich, Ryan Harrison also divides his composition, Disconnected, into discrete units, but he alternates sections with traditional time signatures and sections without time signatures that are aleatoric (music that leaves one or more elements to chance). “The title, Disconnected, can be applied to several different lenses and can have more than one meaning,” Harrison said. “I composed the piece in distinct sections because I didn’t want a continuous stream of music that would be hard for musicians in different spaces to keep together. In the aleatoric passages, I give each member of the quartet four motive fragments composed of two pitches. The performer gets to choose the order and tempo of the patterns they play, so they aren’t required or expected to play together. The desired effect is that of a whirling cacophony, reminding one of a wind chime or a bird chorus. There’s a sense of predictability and unpredictability at the same time.”

View the score for Disconnected

Reflecting on the experience, Harrison said, “Without this commission and the Covid pandemic, I might not have experimented with an aleatoric approach. That was a good challenge—trying to make something interesting out of a difficult situation.”

James Chu, Mk

James Chu takes a different approach in his composition, Mk. Chu marries composed music performed by the quartet members with pre-recorded sounds from a tea ceremony. “Mk stands for Mark (mk) or edition,” he explains. “Mk is a studio composition where each musician overdubs their part, which I call editions.” 

Chu’s mother, Takayo Futamura, is an artist and tea-ceremony master, so Chu grew up with the sounds of the ceremony. “My intent in Mk is to create a space in which the listener can experience a communal sense of warmth through the soundscape of the tea room. The sounds in the recording you hear are the tea whisk, the steam of the kettle, the opening and closing of tea containers, and the setting down of tea tools." 

In Mk, Chu seeks to evoke a different experience of music than we encounter in a concert hall. “Mk is very much about a place of listening,” he said. “I want to create a work in which listeners can enter into an imagined space.”

View the score for Mk

Maximiliano Amici, Mirage

Maximiliano Amici acknowledges the challenges musicians have faced during the Covid-19 pandemic because of the need to perform remotely. “The players must overcome significant technical and musical difficulties, related to the fact of not being able to interact and react in real time to each other’s playing,” he said. He composed Mirage using techniques to help the musicians overcome these limitations. Homorhythmic sections, which make it easier for the players to stay together, alternate with sections where a single instrument predominates, allowing for a level of rhythmic elasticity. An intentionally noisy, agitated section in the middle of the piece features all the performers playing together.

“While physically distanced musicians playing from their private spaces do present a unique sort of beauty, they express also an intrinsic melancholy, as they embody a form of loss,” Amici wrote in the work’s program notes. “Mirage can be heard—on both technical and aesthetic levels, as a reflection of the challenges that we face as we go through the social isolation that Covid-19 pandemic imposes. While the piece is especially conceived to be playable asynchronously, it is also a meditation on solitude and insularity. The music is introverted; it explores a purely internal space. I tried to depict a tired brain that cannot follow its own thinking, while a sort of delirium builds up, dominates the mind for some instants, then fades into silence in the second part of the composition.”

View the score for Mirage

Like the other composers, Amici is very pleased with how the recording turned out. “The Ciompi Quartet played with warmth and expressiveness, and with precision at the same time.”

Recognizing the value of this commissioning initiative, the Portfolio Project will continue in the summer of 2021 with works by Duke graduate composers Brooks Frederickson, Dayton Kinney, and Huijuan Ling.

The Ciompi Quartet serves as Quartet in Residence at Duke University and its members (Eric Pritchard and Hsiao-Mei Ku, violins; Jonathan Bagg, viola and Caroline Stinson, cello) are Professors of the Practice in the Department of Music. More information at ciompi.org.