College of Music
Monday, October 13, 2014
Our upcoming 10/29/2014 Pendulum New Music Concert will present a host of new premieres! Come out to share the excitement of new music!
On obsessions and structures: Daniel Cox and His Musical World
by Egemen Kesikli
The second concert of the Pendulum New Music Series will present a fantastic mélange of styles and colors, featuring world premieres by student composers Daniel Cox, Brian Kelly, Eric Mulhern, Andriy Sovetov, and Trevor Vilwock, as well as the world premiere of a solo violin piece by the CU Faculty member and brilliant multi-instrumentalist, John Gunther.
Daniel Cox, a second year Master’s student, has just attended a masterclass performed by the Ethos String Quartet and coached by John Sherba, the second violinist of the mind-blowing Kronos Quartet. His String Quartet No.1 will be premiered by the same ensemble [Ethos Quartet] in this upcoming Pendulum concert.
I chatted with Dan about his String Quartet, his musical and philosophical thought process, and the great opportunity of having attended a masterclass, where his very own piece was coached by unarguably one of the most influential and brilliant chamber ensembles in existence today.
1. This quartet about your recent struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, as you state in your program notes. Austrian composer Anton Bruckner had an OCD condition: he suffered numeromania, a compulsion to count and record quantities of objects, which was also portrayed in Ken Russell’s (who also directed the famous TV movie, Mahler) The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner. British Musicologist Julian Horton suggests that this compulsion is clearly reflected in his music, with a constant urge to use repetition of motives, "-the so-called metrical grid." How is your "condition" reflected in this quartet?
I wrote this quartet programmatically to reflect my recent struggles with OCD, and subsequently a mild form of depression. I wanted to use the act of writing this quartet as therapeutically as possible, to try and use composition as a way of processing my issues – a method I hadn’t really ever explored before. The first movement, “Obsessions and Compulsions” depicts a panic resulting from a cyclical thought that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t break free of. I really wanted to let my OCD run wild in writing this movement. It is obsessively metrically organized and it prominently features the pitch A, symbolically representing the obsession. I also really tried to keep symmetry and organization a prominent consideration in my compositional choices as the quartet consistently tries different approaches to breaking away from the obsession but ultimately fails. The second movement, “Shame” is less obsessively organized than the first as it depicts the aftermath of a panic where waves of shame (because I was embarrassed by my obsessions and knew that they were crazy but the nonetheless could do nothing to stop them) and intense sadness would follow. I let the structure of this movement be more dictated by the music I wanted to write and allowing a transition from bleak pessimism to heartbreak and sadness seem as natural as possible. The third movement, “Bulerias Demonio” is meant as a dance with my demons. I decided to draw influences from flamenco music because I knew that it had to be a fiery and intense dance form and I just absolutely love flamenco music. This dance form was another opportunity for obsessive organization (albeit less intense) which starts off symbolically as acknowledging the problems at hand and hopefully learning to cope with reality. Ultimately, me trying to tackle these issues through writing this quartet has not only gained me some perspective on my relationship with my illness, but has also allowed me to implement certain strict writing guidelines that resulted in learning more about my writing process.
2. The piece is clearly programmatic, with programmatic titles for each movement, yet you don’t have an overarching title for the entire work, and you call it “The String Quartet No. 1.” Is there a particular reason for it?
Honestly, I came up with the titles for the movements first and then I couldn’t settle on an overall title for the piece that felt right. I felt that everything I needed to say about the program of the piece could be done through the movement titles and the music itself and every attempt at finding an overarching title felt cheap and hokey – so I decided to be non-invasive with a generic title like String Quartet No.1. I don’t like being generic with titles of pieces but I’d rather call it this than settle for something that felt wrong.
3. The moment I saw the slightly-altering pitch A in the first movement, I thought of the opening of Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, but yours evolved into a quasi-Scelsian microtonal language after about fifteen bars. Would you like to talk about the role of microtonality in this piece, and overall in your music; and if there are certain composer influences in your use of microtonality.
I don’t employ quarter tones in the rest of my music that often; I really only typically use them in solo instrumental pieces. But for this piece I decided that the first movement needed to use quarter tones above and below (in addition to semitones) the insistent presence of pitch A in order to represent the struggle of trying to break free from the pitch (i.e., the obsession). I wanted to get as close to that pitch as possible in order to intensify that pull back to A.
4. Renowned theorist Jane Clendinning describes Györgi Ligeti's music in three levels, microstructural, macrostructural, and aural levels, eventually arguing that all three levels are vital to now analyze contemporary classical music. The first movement in your quartet is, as you state in your program notes, is "obsessively organized in its" meter, and I see a pattern of 6/8, 2/4 and 3/4, which would be an element in the microstructure, according to Clendinning. I was curious, however, to hear from your own perspective, whether you think it's possible to notice this "obsessive" pattern in the aural level. If this combination of meters is a recurring pattern, what makes it unique or more significant than a repetitive pattern written in 2/4s that would create the equal effect?
The obsessive structuring of the meters was purely for my compositional process. Each architectural section of the first movement is comprised of 4 “phrases”, which are 2 cycles of this 6/8+6/8+2/4+3/4 metrical structure. I guess aurally you can’t really perceive it at times – and that was intentional on my part. I wanted to play around with some members of the quartet reflecting the meters while some of the others are actively defying those meters. This is another level of trying to break free from the obsession. Looking back on it, it would’ve been much easier for the performers had I written the meters to properly reflect the music but like I said, I needed to organize it obsessively for myself in order to provide some foresight to what I wanted to achieve with this movement.
5. You seem to like big harmonic shifts, like the chromatic A section vs. the middle section in Bb major in first movement, or the chromatic A vs. highly tonal B section in F minor in the Second movement, and finally the D-Phrygian Third movement ending with a chromatic coda. Going back to the concept of micro and macro levels, what is the role of this contrast between tonal-centricity and chromaticism in your music?
With the first movement I wanted to shift tonal centers to places that didn’t include the pitch A for moments of symbolic reprieve from the obsession, after which the intensity is redoubled. Honestly, for the other two movements I didn’t really think about the tonal centers that much; I just chose what I thought sounded good.
6. You bring the "obsession pattern" back in the last movement, right before the multi-rhythmic coda. Is this an acceptance of the condition?
Yeah I guess the third movement is a kind of acceptance of my condition. It’s not a resolution or a moment of overcoming a struggle. I purposely ended the quartet on an irresolute chord to try and say, “Okay, here’s an aspect of my life that I just have to live with now. It’ll be something that I’ll have to cope with every day – some days harder than others – but that’s just life.” It’s an act of confronting my demons head on and not necessarily winning or losing, just coming to terms with it all.
7. You attended a masterclass with John Sherba, the second violinist of Kronos Quartet. Would you like to talk about that experience?
It was great! It was good to hear feedback from John Sherba about the flow and perception of the piece. He commented on the aural perception of sometimes not being able to hear the strict meter (especially when the feel defied the meter), which was good to hear feedback on what it sounded like from a listeners perspective. The quartet really blossomed after their initial run through and it was nice to watch them really lean into it.
8. Sibelius or Finale?
 Mitchell Charles, The Great Composers Portrayed on Film: 1913 through 2002, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishers, 2004), pp. 50-51.
 Julian Horton, Bruckner’s Symphonies: Analysis, Reception, and Cultural Politics, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 19.
 Jane Clendinning, “Harmonic and Formal Processes in Ligeti's Net-Structure Compositions," Music Theory Spectrum 17/2 (Fall, 1995), pp. 242-267.