Quartet for Piano and Strings
By Frank Proto
In 2001 the members of The Merling Trio asked me to compose new piece for their ensemble. At first we spoke about a work comprising only the instrumentation of the group itself - violin, cello and piano. They were looking for something that would feature jazz elements within the context of the work, and after much discussion we decided that adding a double bass would greatly enhance the musical experience that they were looking for.
Working in this area is something that I've been doing for the past 40 years, and at this point I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I hear someone associated with one musical camp or another sermonize on the appropriateness of using vernacular techniques within a serious piece. Dizzy Gillespie once said Serious? What do they think we're doing up there, fooling around? It's odd, we don't seem to hear or read much commentary on the appropriateness of indigenous, popular or vernacular material and techniques in the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler or Bartok. It's all there, and many times right up front. In your face to use the vernacular! So why is it that American Jazz still elicits controversy when it makes an appearance within the confines of a legit piece? (Legit? - as opposed to?) Why is it that even after all of this time, the fuss and wrangling about - What is Jazz? or Oh, this isn't Jazz - there's no improvising or Oh, this one really isn't a Jazz player because - fill in the blank - still permeates the musical air? Now that's a discussion that we can spend a nice amount of time on. However, I'll just say 'enough already! These are many of the sounds that I grew up with - the sounds that I've thought about - the sounds that I've tried to explore, define, refine, make sense of, make music of. When I was young the record cabinet contained Bach, Basie, Shostakovich, Sinatra, Charlie Christian, Charlie Ives, Charlie Mingus (he hadn't decided that we had to call him Charles yet) as well as Machito, John Cage, Oscar Peterson, Puccini, Tito Puente and Jonathan and Darlene Edwards. Is there any wonder why I'm confused!?'
So where were we? Oh yes it's 2001 and the assignment is for 15 to 20 minutes of music for 3 strings and piano. What am I hearing these days? Got to get it out of my ears! Or perhaps I can use some of it.
Ok, let's get going: we start simple, get into a little Latin bit, do a Funk thing in the piano & bass while the two upper strings wail. Quiet things down a bit, then time for the bass solo. Coupla' chorus' of Blues. Hey he's improvising, must be jazz! Time to take it out. Back to the Latin thing & recapping some earlier stuff. A little fill by the bass & we're half over.
Next part: Sloooow, violin & cello do their thing - is this the legit part? Oh no, the bass player has to ruin it with all of those weird quarter-tones! Pianist not happy at all about this turn of events. Lays out except to comment now & then but finally can't restrain herself and joins in the madness. "What's he doing? He promised us a jazz piece & we're doing all of this weird stuff. We're gonna' get killed! That's it, I'm outta' here. Maybe a couple of questions at the end, but this belongs to those other guys."
Last part: Ooo, what's happening! violin & piano cooking, unison - some Coltrane changes, then, then . . . A Charleston? Hey no fair! Backwards now - through Trane, violin/cello thing, another Charleston bit. Yikes, they're stopping - Stripper music! What kind of an ending is this? Impossible, it's just not legit!
One of the biggest differences in the (non-pop) musical landscape between 40 years ago and today is the attitude, ability and mindset of many of today's performers. In contrast to those guardians of the faith - artist managers, business managers, orchestra managers, newspaper editors, magazine editors - who toil endlessly to protect us from corruption, depravity and the vulgarity of contemporary music, the performers of today are much more open to stylistically, technically and musically challenging work. As the 21st century begins we are in a curious situation. We have an astounding number of technically proficient and musically perceptive musicians available throughout our land, yet almost anything that is not geared toward the musical imbecile is virtually ignored by our mainstream entertainment media. For composers this state-of-affairs is even more curious; on one hand we have an opportunity - at least in the chamber music domain - to have our pieces performed at a very high level. On the other, it's sad to say that not too many people will have the opportunity to hear them.
Quartet for Piano and Strings; for me it's a piece for both players and listeners to have a good time with. Like most chamber pieces, it's meant for an intimate setting where everybody is close to the action, similar to the feeling of sitting in a small club listening to a jazz group. A jazz piece? No, not really. Sure there are some jazz elements in it. Yes, there is even some improvisation. But let's try & go beyond the pigeon-holes that we're expected to fill and just say that 'here is some abstract music that, while not testing the boundaries of the latest avant-garde techniques, does require a fair amount of attention from the listener if he or she is to derive pleasure from it.'