MCKINLEY: String Quartets Nos. 4-6.
The Martinu Quartet.
Navona Records NV5855 TT: 67:09

Tonal, but very, very strange. Elliott Miles McKinley studied with David Gompper, Michael Daugherty, and William Bolcom, among others. Jazz and improvisation attracts him, both as a composer and as a performer.

The jazz part, at any rate, comes out in the String Quartet No. 4. However, like most classical works fooling with jazz since the Twenties, the jazz is never that of the present, but something retro. Composers still tend to fool around with Jim Europe and Louis Armstrong rather than with Sonny Rollins, Johnny Vidacovich, or Ornette Coleman. Leonard Bernstein's a bit unusual, in that he often evokes the Swing era in his jazz-inspired pieces. To my ear, McKinley keeps himself to the Twenties, with some Martinu-like syncopations thrown in. He writes gratefully for the quartet and plays around a lot with perceived downbeats against the bar. The day-dreamy first movement especially, based on a pentatonic idea, moves very gracefully. The second movement, a perky scherzo, shows off McKinley's contrapuntal chops. This is brilliant string quartet writing, with significant evidence of a major symphonic planner. Anybody can get the melody, and the melody often splits from one instrument to another, not necessarily at "logical" points. The third movement obsesses over a pentatonic idea in the cello in what sounds to me like a slow tango. The finale plays pizzicato strings off bowed. Seldom does everybody pluck at the same time. The music reminded me, to my surprise, of Malipiero's quartets, although I think it a long shot that McKinley's actually heard any -- just one of those coincidences of the consequences of similar ideas. The movement begins with a bit of an edge, but by the conclusion finds a kind of peace.

The jazz becomes a bit more explicit in the Fifth Quartet, of unusual design. The jazz has retreated even further back to proto-jazz, like ragtime and tango. McKinley here has to a great extent shed his earlier sources -- Bernstein, Martinu -- and seems in the process of becoming his own man. The quartet consists of three large parts, with several subsections to a part, all played without a break. It opens with an "Introduction." The first violin, supported by an ostinato of even eighth notes from the lower strings, embarks on a long-breathing line, full of sudden switches from single plucks to bows and back again. This leads to "Ragtime," a section, particularly its initial riff, that has great importance throughout the entire quartet. Eventually, we get to a movement called "Ritornello." A ritornello is a simple repeat or a refrain. Here, we repeat the "Introduction," this time with the viola taking lead, and the other strings again in even-eighth ostinato. The first part ends with a "Tango," which makes a great deal of use of the "ragtime" riff.

The second part, essentially the slow movement, begins with articulated chords. This leads to "Chorale," a sarabande of great feeling. There aren't many notes here, but each one mines depths.

Part III leads off "with a touch of swagger," according to the marking. It leads to more of the ragtime riff as well as something from the tango in the section labeled "Interruptions." A second ritornello emerges, where basically the repeated element is repeated eighths, this time in one instrument, with the other three going nuts. This changes to a different ostinato, with a repeat of material from the "Introduction." We reach the "Coda," a meditation on the even-eighth ostinato and the ragtime riff.

For me, both quartets show great poetry. McKinley's invention consistently pulls me in, and, despite his sources, his quartets sound like nobody else's. In the Fourth, I sense a fellow who has mastered his influences; in the Fifth, someone who has absorbed them. Despite the conservative idiom, however, the emotional landscape is strange to the point of surrealism. If I looked up at the sky, I wouldn't be surprised to see a pair of gigantic flying lips. Only in the sarabande of the Fifth do I get anything like direct expression. These quartets are the soundtrack of dreams.

I sense in the Sixth Quartet McKinley striking out in new directions. The music is less assured and more risky. It falls into four continuous movements: "Introduction," "Waltz and Scherzo," "Chaccone" [sic] (where the ground, unusually, is the inner two parts), "Interlude and Conclusion." The tempi are slow, moderate-to-fast, slow, fast. Overall, it strikes me as a transitional work that will lead to a breakthrough, rather than a thoroughly successful piece in its own right (except for the scherzo). Good luck.

McKinley has given the Martinu Quartet some knots to untangle and rough places to make plain. The players come through not merely professionally. They show the great elegance of McKinley's writing and thought.

The CD is one of those "interactive" deals. You can listen to it on a regular player, but inserting it into your computer will give you access to program notes (saves on booklet costs), ring tones (!) -- excerpts from the Fifth and Sixth Quartets -- information about the recording companies, and, most important, scores of the three quartets. Since the disc didn't come with instructions, it took me a while to figure out how to listen and follow along at the same time. It turns out that Navona loops the first movement of the Fourth Quartet as musical wallpaper to the menu. You have to turn that off (there's a clear icon) and then access the disc through your computer's media player. Once I figured it out, what a pleasure! Maybe these new-fangled computers have some use after all.

S.G.S. (October 2011)