Paul Alan Levi, composer

“…uninhibited emotional expression…skillful instrumentation.”

The New York Times

"clever…reflective and controlled.”



Second String Quartet

Reversals and Chases

Premiered by Avalon String Quartet
Merkin Concert Hall, New York
11 minutes

       My Second String Quartet is a one-movement, eleven-minute piece. "Reversals and Chases" refers to the frequent use of retrogrades and canons. Parts of the Quartet are based on such structural processes, but no matter what compositional techniques I use, what matters to me is the sweep and dramatic impact of the piece.


        I began the Quartet soon after 9/11, at a dark and chaotic time in our lives and history. Towards the end of an evening when I wasn’t trying to compose, the ostinati of the opening measures presented themselves to me and insisted that I compose a string quartet around them. Each ostinato had a different length: 15 eighth-notes long, 14, and 13, with a first violin solo originally scheduled for 12, but it had its own ideas. As a result, the alignment of the ostinati shifts constantly, creating an uneasy effect of instability, uncertainty, quicksand.

            Such reversal of fortune makes it difficult to know what progress is any more; are we moving forwards or backwards? The idea of using retrogrades, reversals, came to me unbidden, but in fact the opening 10-bar solo in the first violin is followed by its own retrograde, which turns out to have more importance in the piece than the original. The clearest use of forwards/backwards occurs in the central fugue, in which the second half is the same as the first half played backwards, with more vigorous and varied articulation.


            "Fugue" is Latin for "chase," which is the medieval word for canon, and my preferred word for the many canons in the Quartet. Most of them are heterophonic, meaning that they consist of the same melody played simultaneously in different rhythms, articulations, dynamics, all chasing each other, every man for himself, competitive and chaotic.


            It isn’t necessary for the listener to be aware of any of the processes or techniques I have used. In all of my compositions, no matter how I put them together, I’m only trying to create opportunities for good things to happen. The only judge of that is my ear, and yours.


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