Stanford Mohr Visiting Artist Majel Connery reimagines the string quartet

A team of visiting artists teach the theatricality of musical performance.  

What happens when you imagine the string quartet as a theatrical genre? How can the inherent showmanship of the four musicians expand to interact with voice, acting and operatic performance? These are the questions Mohr Visiting Artist Majel Connery examined in her winter class, Theatricality and the String Quartet, with help from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw and Stanford’s ensemble-in-residence, the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ).

Mohr Visiting Artist Majel Connery performs with the St. Lawrence String Quartet on the CCRMA Stage.

Mohr Visiting Artist Majel Connery performs with the St. Lawrence String Quartet on the CCRMA Stage. (Image credit: Nick Chris)

Connery, Shaw and the SLSQ will continue to explore the theatrical possibilities of music this spring with guest opera director Christopher Alden when they present a workshop staging of Shaw’s latest commission, Contriving the Chimes, in Bing Concert Hall Studio on April 21.

The Office of the Vice President for the Arts administers the Mohr Visiting Artist Program, which brings acclaimed and emerging artists to campus for a one-term period to teach a credited course and provide a presentation, exhibition or performance for the Stanford community and the public. Connery is Stanford’s sixth Mohr Visiting Artist and she is being hosted by the Department of Music. A vocalist, composer and musicologist, Connery is also the co-founder and director of Opera Cabal, an arts think tank for the conjunction of academic and creative work on opera.

Bringing students’ works to life

The string quartet itself is already a theatrical ensemble. Audiences are riveted by the four players as their artistry takes center stage in a complicated dance of musical and gestural communication. Connery’s course, cross-listed in the departments of Music and Theater and Performance Studies, introduced an added element of theatrical performance through close collaboration with Shaw and the SLSQ.

Students enrolled in the class worked individually and in teams composing pieces that varied greatly in scope, style and instrumentation. Yuval Adler, a graduate student in the Department of Music, wrote Postmodern, a work that calls for the four members of a string quartet to play on a single cello. Each musician bows two strings, producing harsh tones that slowly transition to more pleasing and harmonious sounds.

“The name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the more ambitious piece it was derived from before being cut down,” said Adler, “as well as to the image created in performance – a cello strapped to a table with the players huddled around it.” The cello became the focal point, not only of the music but also of the theatrical performance.

Music major Hannah Pho, ’18, wrote /ə‘w■k/, or A Work/A Walk/Awake, a monologue performed by a narrator and string quartet. The work portrays, as Pho puts it, “the rapid pace of the information age,” and tells the story of “breaking free from technology.” The music transitions from cold and impersonal to warm and poetic, shedding the shackles of technology, which is equated with finding harmony and ultimately, authenticity.

The SLSQ and visiting Rolston String Quartet performed the students’ final projects for the public at the CCRMA Stage at the end of the winter quarter.

Spring collaboration

Connery’s inspiration for her part in the spring collaboration with Shaw, SLSQ and Alden were the lists in Susan Sontag’s journals. Connery adapted a different list, that of Isaac Newton’s sinful things he did on Sundays, into the vocal line for Contriving the Chimes.

The fascination with lists lies in the text’s poetic underpinnings. The cadence of the list and its odd combination of words becomes music as it is sung aloud. The other parts of the four-way collaboration are composition by Shaw, music performed by SLSQ, and stage direction by Alden.

It is appropriate, in light of Connery’s class, that Contriving the Chimes should be drawn from an earlier work Shaw wrote for dance performance. Dance’s inherent theatricality lends itself to the questions Connery seeks to explore in the context of the string quartet.

What’s more, Shaw’s work plays with the excitement and unpredictability of live music, allowing performers to interpret and change the piece with each new performance. Unlike a traditional composition for a string quartet, Contriving the Chimes is not fixed. Not every performance will be the same, last the same amount of time or feature the exact same notes and sounds. Live music takes on an exhilarating dimension, a new level of theatricality. Shaw explains, “there is a version written down, but there is flexibility in the score.”

Shaw recalls her own musical upbringing in choosing to write for the string quartet. As a violinist and violist, she said the quartet feels like home. Shaw grew up listening to the SLSQ, and savored her time performing chamber music by Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms.

Now, as a composer, she returns to the quartet often, writing works almost every year for this particular configuration. She says, “it’s a wonderful palette to create and invent different worlds.”

Contriving the Chimes combines Connery’s exploration of the ensemble’s potential for greater theatricality, Shaw’s personal history with this configuration, the SLSQ’s unparalleled artistry and Alden’s artistic vision. It will premiere at Bing interspersed with another new composition, a song cycle by Doug Balliett, August is also cruel. Forty minutes of music will be followed by a post-show discussion with Alden and the performers, led by dramaturge and University of Chicago professor David J. Levin.

The performance is part of Stanford Live’s new cabaret series that Executive Director Chris Lorway launched to encourage creative use of the studio space.mAs with any world premiere, the final result is not yet known and when it comes to Contriving the Chimes, the music will continue to evolve long after this first performance.