Compact Disc Cover Art - "Tonal Fusion (after Kandinsky)" watercolor by Jan Brown Checco
String Quartet No. 1
for Piano and Strings

for Violin, Viola
and Double Bass


E S F - Ensemble Sans Frontière

Red Mark CD 9209
Hear Audio Excerpts of the music

See Reviews in the following publications
The Strad
American Record Guide
Double Bassist
Bass World

Notes by Jonathan Kramer

As his large number of works for orchestra indicates, Proto likes big sounds. But how does a composer who prefers full sonorities compose for just a trio of three string instruments? One way is by thinking not of three individual sound-producers, but of twelve, each instrument (violin, viola, and bass) has four strings, and often several of them are vibrating at once to produce rich textures and full-bodied counterpoint. Since Proto understands string instruments intimately, he knows how to get several of those strings sounding at once. Thus the Trio abounds in double, triple, and quadruple-stops (respectively, two, three, and four-note chords played by individual instruments) and also in polyphony - separate melodies played simultaneously on each instrument.

Each of the Trio's three movements has a particularly interesting middle section. In the rhapsodic first movement, there is an incessant repetition of a dissonant note pair (actually played nearly five hundred times in succession!) While the violin continues this obsessive repetition, the other instruments play sometimes incisively, sometimes freely (the bass part is partially improvised). The second movement's middle section is marked slow 4 - quasi funk. The mixture of Italian and English in this label corresponds to the combination of jazz-like licks in the bass with more "legit" playing styles in the other instruments. This passage leads to a violin cadenza, accompanied by (but not coordinated with) a bass improvisation. The violin solo in the middle section of the third movement is marked Blues: sempre non vibrato. Here Proto creates a fascinating sonority, as he asks the violin to play its tune consistently on two strings, sounding at first in unison and later in octaves. This section continues with a solo bass improvisation based on a twelve-bar blues progression.

Proto's String Quartet Number 1 ups the ante, in a sense. Although just as much a crossover piece as the Trio, it is often aggressively modernist. The wildly sonorous opening - lots of strings in action, once again - gives no hint of the jazz to come. In this work Proto expands his sonic vocabulary to include such wonderful effects as textless singing (sometimes used percussively, sometimes as a vocal crooning within the harmonies. The most interesting use of the string players' voices occurs at 3:50 of the last movement, where they are instructed to alternate sustained sounds between voice and instrument), hitting the cello strings not with the bow but with a pencil used as a drum stick (at the first movement's "moderate rock" passage, 1'49"), guitar-like violin pizzicati (at 3:14 of the second movement, for example), Webernian pointillism (3:46 of the second movement), and a fast tremolo produced by a knitting needle or screwdriver placed between the cello strings (first heard at 0:33 of the third movement). Perhaps the most obvious evocation of vernacular music comes at 1:47 of the last movement, where the two violins play, in unison and without vibrato, an imitation of a folk fiddle. This particular music is a bit quirky, as it unfolds over a blues-like progression with a cello ostinato in 13/8 time. The String Quartet was commissioned by the Blair School of Music in Nashville and first performed in 1977 by the Blair Quartet

While the String Quartet is unusual among Proto's works for omitting his own instrument, the Quintet for Piano and Strings features both of his instruments, bass and piano. The opening of the first movement contains few hints of jazz, but as soon as the piano enters lush jazz harmonies take over. The contrast is instructive, since neither the modernist harmonies nor the jazz harmonies are inherently more dissonant. Their structures differ (rooted-oriented jazz chords vs. intervallically conceived "legit" sonorities), but not their pungency. The second movement, perhaps as a subconscious homage to the slow movement of Beethoven's Piano Concerto in G, is permeated by dialogues between piano and strings, the latter often playing in unison. The dialogue intensifies at 4:45. The finale is probably the most sustained evocation of jazz in Proto's chamber music. The Quintet was commissioned by the Minneapolis Artists Ensemble, who premiered it on 8 April 1984.

For more detailed notes on the music click on each title above.

Members of Ensemble Sans Frontière appearing on this disc.

Michael Chertock, Piano
Larrie Howard, Violin and Viola
Laura McLellan, Cello
Sylvia Mitchell, Violin
Paul Patterson, Violin and Viola
Susan Marshall Peterson, Cello
Frank Proto, Double Bass