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Traces of a Silent Landscape

Instrumentation: string quartet
Duration: 16:00
Year Composed: 2011
Commissioner: Windermere String Quartet (Toronto, ON)
  1. Fugue. Meditation on a snow-blanketed wilderness (attacca)
  2. Punctuated tranquility (attacca)
  3. Scherzo. Bustle behind a veil of calm
  4. Forest’s lullaby


Recording

Windermere String Quartet: Inner Landscapes Featured on the Windermere String Quartet's CD "Inner Landscapes" (2016). Purchase.
"[...] a striking and very effective work, quite modern in style but with clear traditional roots. The delicate ending of the final Forest's Lullaby is quite stunning." —Terry Robbins, The WholeNote (April 2017)

Audio Samples

performed on Classical period instruments

I. Fugue. Meditation on a snow-blanketed wilderness (opening)

II. Punctuated tranquility (middle)

III. Scherzo. Bustle behind a veil of calm (opening)

IV. Forest's lullaby (middle)


Video Sample

Traces of a Silent Landscape: Scherzo performed live by the Vaughan String Quartet.

Program Notes

While snowshoeing in Algonquin Park during the dead of winter my wife and I experienced a remarkable tranquillity and solitude, a hushed landscape only occasionally punctuated by the taps, squeaks and croaks of woodpeckers, chickadees and ravens. The silence we encountered not only invited contemplation but also a heightened search for any traces of life. Upon closer inspection, the velvety layers of snow draped over fallen branches and tree trunks turned out to be littered with the tracks of deer, deer mice and moose. On our last day in the woods we came upon fresh moose scat and tracks which we followed, and to our delight, came upon a family of these forest giants contentedly munching on bark. They paid little heed to our gawking. The forest teems with life but one rarely experiences it directly.

The trek inspired me to explore the tensions between outer silence and inner excitement, and outer activity and inner tranquillity. An ensemble capable of the softest and most delicate of sounds—like a string quartet—seemed up to the task.

The first three movements proceed without break. A slow fugue introduces the work’s meditative mood. Conventional in its deployment of familiar fugal devices, culminating with a stretto climax, the final statement is delayed by a meandering series of suspension-laden Schubertian sighs. We get lost in the woods before finding our way.

The second movement explores stasis, a surreal calm only occasionally interrupted by activity: the gentle rustling of dead, golden leaves, the call of a chickadee, the distant slow tapping of a woodpecker excavating for bugs.

The scherzo’s swirling effects, lively rhythms, heterophony, and an ostinato in 15/16 frequently at metrical odds with foreground melodies, represent the imagined life of the winter forest—imagined because one rarely actually sees or hears anything.

The quartet closes with a gentle lullaby whose mood echoes that of the first movement but without its contrapuntal complexity. Melodic fragments moving mostly by step derive from the clear song of the chickadee itself (a falling whole tone).

This piece was commissioned by Toronto’s Windermere String Quartet which performs on Classical period instruments whose distinct qualities I bore in mind while composing (without precluding performance on modern instruments): the subdued, airy quality of gut strings and the sparing use of vibrato, in particular. By incorporating a slow fugue I also paid tribute to the works with which my quartet would be performed at its premiere: Beethoven’s Op. 95 "Serioso" and Mendelssohn’s Op. 13, both of which incorporate fugato sections in their slow movements. —R.R.


Performances

  • Nov 6, 2016—Vaughan String Quartet
    Munson Chapel, Azusa Pacific University School of Music (Azusa, CA)
  • Nov 5, 2016—Vaughan String Quartet
    Loskota Recital Hall (San Gabriel, CA)
  • Jun 11, 2016—Windermere String Quartet, Open Tuning Festival
    Christ the Saviour Russian Orthodox Cathedral (Toronto)
  • May 24, 2016—Vaughan String Quartet
    Auditorium Mozart (Ivrea, Italy)
  • May 13-16, 2016—Vaughan String Quartet
    Festival International de Musique Universitaire (Belfort, France)
  • Feb 21, 2016—Windermere String Quartet
    St. Olave's Anglican Church (Toronto, ON)
  • Jan 30, 2016—Vaughan String Quartet
    Holy Trinity Anglican Church (Edmonton, AB)
  • Nov 21, 2014—Windermere String Quartet, Toronto United Mennonite Church
  • Feb 16, 2014—Vaughan String Quartet
    Robertson-Wesley United Church (Edmonton, AB)
  • Feb 1, 2014—Vaughan String Quartet
    St Albert Chamber Music Recital Series (St Albert, AB)
  • May 24, 2013—Vaughan String Quartet, Muttart Hall (Edmonton, AB)
  • Apr 9, 2013—Alcan String Quartet, Salle Pierrette-Gaudreault (Jonquière, QC)
  • Nov 20, 2011—Windermere String Quartet
    St Olave's Anglican Church (Toronto, ON)

Reviews

"[...] a striking and very effective work, quite modern in style but with clear traditional roots. One gets the immediate impression that the quiet, wispy nature of the music is not only perfectly suited to the particular sounds that these period instruments produce but was also inspired by them [...] The delicate ending of the final Forest's Lullaby is quite stunning."

—Terry Robbins, The WholeNote, April 2017

"[...] begins with a measured fugal texture—more evocative of the fugues of the Romantics than Bach [...] with a long climax. Each movement explores an aspect of wintery stillness in nature. It's effective writing and definitely worth a listen."

—Kiersten van Vliet, La Scena Musicale, June 1, 2017

Score Perusal & Parts Rental

For score perusal and parts rental information, contact Robert Rival.