Separation Songs   CB0055

The music

Separation Songs (2013/2018)—a transcendent, slowly-evolving set of 54 variations on four-voice hymn tunes——juxtaposes and weaves together an array of tunes from William Billings’s New England Psalm Singer (1770), gradually altering them as the piece unfolds. Although its architectural surface remains fairly consistent throughout, the 70-minuter work for two string quartets is at any given moment alluring and eloquent in its simplicity and beauty. The composer writes, “Throughout the piece, hymn tunes appear and reappear in ever-expanding loops of music. . . . Each time they return, the tunes filter through a ‘separation process,’ whereby selected notes migrate from one quartet to the other . . . generating new rhythms and harmonies.” On this recording, L.A.’s acclaimed Eclipse Quartet accompanies and interacts with itself—playing both quartet parts via overdubbing.

“Ever wonder what two centuries colliding sounds like? Listen to Separation Songs.” (Robert Carl)

The composer

Matt Sargent is a composer, guitarist, music technologist, and audio engineer based in upstate New York. His generally pensive and serene music is often based on natural resonances and repeating structures and frequently involves the sonic features of specific spaces, which has led him to create work in many unique locations, such as the grain elevators of Buffalo’s Silo City and Death Valley’s Rhyolite ghost town. His music has been heard in concerts and installations at the Reykjavik Art Museum, Constellation (Chicago), The Wulf (Los Angeles), the Darmstadt Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, the New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival, the Chesapeake Orchestra’s River Concert Series (DC), the Museum of Contemporary Art (Cleveland), the SEM Ensemble’s Emerging Composers series, and elsewhere. He is a visiting assistant professor of electronic music and sound at Bard College. His album Ghost Music, a work for solo percussionist, was released on the Weightier Recordings label in 2018, his Tide (for ten basses)was released on the Marginal Frequency label in 2019. (www.mattsargentmusic.com)

Sargent’s music has been described by critics as “a powerfully organic experience” (Sequenza21) that is “so simple, so natural, and yet sets up a complex set of interactions” (SoundExpanse) as it “uses bare resources to establish a bounded and essential space” (The Wire).

The performers

The eminent Eclipse Quartet is a Los Angeles–based ensemble dedicated to performing contemporary music. It has toured throughout the U.S. and Europe, and its repertoire spans extends from works by John Cage and Morton Subotnick to collaborations with the singers Beck and Caetano Veloso and includes works music by Roger Reynolds, Roscoe Mitchell, Julia Wolfe, Peter Garland, Ben Johnston, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Annie Gosfield, John Zorn, Fred Frith, Philip Glass, Lois V. Vierk, John Adams, John Luther Adams, Jim Fox, and many others. The group has recorded music by Morton Feldman, Frederick Rzewski, James Tenney, Ben Johnston, and Zeena Parkins for the Tzadik, New World, Microfest, and Bridge labels. (Eclipse’s members—Sarah Thornblade and Sara Parkins, violins; Alma Lisa Fernandez, viola; Maggie Parkins, cello—are also active studio musicians.) “The Eclipse [Quartet] is LA’s answer to 20th-century and present-day music.” (HuffPost)

Comments

“I think this is a beautiful piece of music and I am not sure why. I like the slowness of the development, the melodic touch and the general minimalism. If anything, I am reminded of the work of Gavin Bryars, his Obscure Records…. Forty years ago, Brian Eno could have picked this record as well for inclusion on the great Obscure Records series. A long and excellent piece of music that brought some much needed calm to my place.” —Frans de Waard, Vital Weekly

“You may think you’ve heard everything there is to hear but there cannot be an end truly.… Luckily out of the absolute everything of possibility there are good things still to be heard, very good things. Such a good thing is Matt Sargent’s 70-minute chamber opus Separation Songs, as played with proper and considerable spirit by the Eclipse Quartet. It is scored for two string quartets and consists of 54 variations on hymns by William Billings. There is ‘separation’ in the way tones from one hymn migrate into another one at every turn in the cycle.

“Given the Cold Blue label designation you’d be right in assuming a Radical Tonality category for it. It belongs there…yet one notes also that it evokes, in fact what it is [is] on one level a string arrangement of old SATB hymns such as (in more conventional form) might have been played on deck in the last hours of the Titanic’s ill-fated voyage. The gradually timeless suspension the separations give rise to makes it as all in a dream, something ultimately without temporal provenance in the way it seems—and so it derives its radical quality in that way.

“It is in the oscillation of is and is not to the above that the music takes its power and charges it. It is the secret push to it all. Secret before it hits you that is. Then it is the IS that gets you in repeated hearings, how the music is radicalized in its sequencing as in some dreamtime realm we only know when we recognize its kithing kin-twin-ness so to say. It is as like-with-like without patently perceived repetition so much as continuity that this music derives its pull and charm from.

“It grows on you after a matter-of-fact first hearing, like someone’s words that seem simple but then in recall they take on deeper impact, so also this music in second, third, and etc., hearings.

“That is the crux of this one. Hear it, contemplate it, then get it into your ear zone for good? Do. Process is product, and a very good thing it is! .” —Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

“There’s repetition, and then, there’s repetition on such a cosmically vast plane as to stress audibility. Matt Sargent’s haunting and beautiful Separation Songs pushes the art of repetition to its limits in a frame that offers the calm waters of meditative listening while gently disturbing them.

Composed between 2013 and 2018, this nearly hour-and-a-quarter work for two string quartets sounds larger than it is. The likelihood is that its excellent engineering is responsible for the illusions of largess. Sargent begins with hymn tunes collected in 1770 by William Billings, but they serve a more inclusive musical purpose as they loop and bump up against each other in the overdubbed hands of the excellent Eclipse Quartet. While tones clash, pulse and vibrate in a kind of post-Alvin Lucierian sympathy, those points of friction are not what softly but insistently rattles the eardrum, or not completely. The piece moves from modal territory reminiscent of Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang toward something much closer in its restlessness to Faure’s requiem, ripples just beneath the surface disturbing but never completely shattering its calm. The tunes themselves float in and out of focus with the short-term simplicity but underlying multivalence of a Messiaen adagio.

“The recording allows for a beautiful view, so to speak, of the two string quartets as they traverse and retraverse the tunes’ cartographies in loose parallel, but nothing is presented in too stark of a relief. If simple immersion in the soundworld is the order of the day, it is easily attained. There is little more to say about the long but fruitful journey itself, save that, as with so many Cold Blue releases, it involves a gradual unfolding, and anyone without the patience to undertake it might do better elsewhere. Conversely, for those desiring an hour of bliss for adults, of something beyond so much of the mindless music afloat these days supposedly made to foster a meditative state but really an excuse for vapid self-indulgence and self-congratulation, there are moments when nothing else will do. There is a depth to this excursion into early North-American spirituality that will keep it relevant long after pieces whose music falls flat under the weight of their titles have vanished.” —Marc Medwin, Fanfare magazine [Five Stars]

“On first listen, one wonders, what is this instrument? A glass harmonica? A pair of harmoniums? A small organ? Perhaps a medieval string consort. One hears hymn-like chords and cadences. Yet dissonances intrude briefly, and Ivesian multi-key-centers blossom.

“In fact, Matt Sergeant bases this music on that of William Billings, born in 1746 in Boston. As a teen, Billings received training as a tanner of hides, but began writing hymns for four-part chorus, and published them in book-length collections.

“With Separation Songs, Sergeant has composed 54 variations on four-voice hymn tunes from Billings’s New England Psalm Singer(1770). The 73-minute tapestry of continual sound suggests stasis, even eternity itself. And the instrument is actually the Eclipse Quartet, overdubbing itself.

“’Throughout the piece,’ Sergeant writes, ‘hymn tunes appear and reappear in ever-expanding loops of music passed between the quartets. Each time they return, the tunes filter through a “separation process,” whereby selected notes migrate from one quartet to the other.’

“It’s gorgeous, and reminds one of John Hollway’s 2014 ECM release, Pavans and Fantasies from the Age of Dowland, and Kronos Quartet’s 1997 release, Early Music.” —Paul Alan Baker, Only Strings

“The work is a reflection on the hymn tunes of William Billings, probably my favorite of the composers active before ‘the colonies’ became the United States of America. (One of those hymns, ‘Let the high heavn’s your songs invite,’ was even repurposed into the revolutionary anthem ‘Chester.’) Separation Songs was scored for two string quartets. Sargent’s technique was to deconstruct the hymn tunes down to the level of the notes, after which a ‘separation process’ would enable selected notes to migrate from one quartet to the other.

“The performance on this recording is by the Eclipse Quartet, whose members are violinists Sarah Thornblade and Sara Parkins, violist Alma Lisa Fernandez, and cellist Maggie Parkins. That’s right, there is only one string quartet. Sargent’s ‘separation process’ is realized through studio overdubbing techniques. Readers may recall that, at the beginning of this month, I expressed a clear dislike for such multi-track recording processes. Also, just for the record, I tend to be skeptical about extended compositions that proceed without interruption or much sense of segmentation for more than an hour. (What can I say? I’ve had so much exposure to linguistic studies that it is hard for me to avoid the act of parsing!)

“Nevertheless, I am willing to admit that even the strongest of rules should be allowed to bend for an exception every now and then. When CD technology was first launched, I was drawn to Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon recording, which seemed to have more to do with filling exactly one hour of time than with how that hour would be structured. I still have that CD in my collection, and I still enjoy listening to it every now and then.

“To some extent, then, the Separation Songs album allows for some degree of ‘redemption’ on my part. This is due primarily to my enthusiasm for the Billings source material. It is through that familiarity that I can at least begin to appreciate Sargent’s approach to deconstruction. The sense of physical separation, on the other hand, seems to have been created by relatively subtle studio techniques. As a result, the act of listening is not one of ‘follow the bouncing motif.’ Rather, it is sufficient to identify recurring atomic units and possibly even allow the emergence of a sense of how those units are threaded, whether or not that ‘thread’ emerges between two string quartets or within a single one.

“Granted, such a listening strategy serves to undermine the logic behind the title of the composition itself. In a better world I would much prefer to listen to a concert performance of this music involving two physically separated quartets without any assistance from any amplification technology. It would not surprise me to learn that Sargent himself felt the same way, and I can think of one or two organizations here in San Francisco that might enable such an approach to performance. That said, listening to the recording he produced at least allows me to get my head around his relationship to his thematic sources and the rhetorical devices through which that relationship is realized. That may not be enough to appreciate the composer’s sense of separation in its full depth; but, as Billie Holiday used to sing, ‘it will have to do/Until the real thing comes along!’” —Stephen Smoliar, The Rehearsal Studio

“Sargent is a composer and music technologist with an interest in acoustical phenomena and recursive systems (in which an event is directly dependent on those that preceded it)—admirers of Alvin Lucier will find this familiar. Separation Songs is based entirely on material from four-voice hymn tunes in William Billings’s ‘New England Psalm Singer’ (1770), so in terms of harmony and melody (and playing style), this is what the music ‘sounds like.’ The experimental aspect of the work, that separates it from pleasant string octet transcriptions of the hymns is that the ensemble is used as two quartets exchanging material between them, which with each repetition reassigns notes from one quartet to the other, the resulting gaps filled in by prolonging the preceding tone. Over the course of the continuous hour and a quarter work in 53 ‘variations,’ the result is that the material is presented in longer and longer loops, while texturally tending toward sustained chords in new rhythms, the melodic outlines increasingly subsumed in the harmony. Easy to listen to as a kind of ‘ambient’ music, but also with a distinct, and accelerating (the ‘separation’ algorithm functioning exponentially) sense of direction and progress.” —Records International

“Extremely rich and lovely, eternally stretched out variations on hymns by William Billings.” —Brian Olewnick

“[T]he epic, seventy-three minute piece found here . . . performed by the Eclipse Quartet . . . gets its title and modus operandi from ‘a collection of 54 variations on four-voice hymn tunes from a 1770s series of works by William Billings.’ Eclipse Quartet accompanies and interacts with itself, playing both quartet parts via overdubbing. In the trading and looping of various string motifs and the overarching sound that results, the Quartet’s resulting symphony might be one of the most heartbreaking works of post-modern classical music in recent memory. Mournful passages drip with an ache that’s almost physically palpable; when some sense of hope is glimpsed, it is quickly…drenched in a poignancy that is nigh on devastating. Sargent’s deft production emphasizes the quartet’s weaving of numerous wraith-like filaments that bring a disarming ethereality to the recording, yet it’s the work’s fundamental emotionalism that makes it such a passionate experience. Powerful, wrenching stuff.” —Darren Bergstein, Downtown Music Gallery Newsletter

Separation Songs consists of 54 variations on hymn melodies written by the pioneering American composer William Billings in the 18th century and published in his 1770 collection New England Psalm Singer. Using two string quartets (in this case, the excellent Eclipse Quartet playing against itself by means of studio overdubbing), the composer pulls melodic fragments apart, sending them from one quartet to the other, creating a constantly-shifting array of new melodies and harmonies. Like a kaleidoscope, the music is always changing and yet always staying the same: its fundamental elements move constantly but consistently within predetermined boundaries. Its strange blend of uplift and melancholy made me think of some of Gavin Bryar’s best work. Strongly recommended.” —Rick Anderson, CD Hotlist

Separation Songs, by composer Matt Sargent, is a recently released CD from Cold Blue Music, featuring the Eclipse Quartet.Based on 54 variations of hymn tunes, this 73-minute work for two string quartets creates a kaleidoscopic array of harmonies that continuously turn and reassemble into new combinations and colors. From the radiant Bach chorales to the sturdy New England tunes heard in this piece, church hymnody has provided some of the most compelling harmony in music. Separation Songsis an audacious attempt to distill the implicit harmonic possibilities from the four-voice hymn tunes in William Billings’s 1770 edition of New England Psalm Singer. The Eclipse Quartet accomplishes this formidable task with impressive precision, performing and overdubbing both quartet parts.  

Separation Songsopens in full harmony with a slow and stately melody. There is a traditional feel to this—plain, stable and secure. The rhythms are gentle and steady throughout the piece, with few perceptible changes in the tempo. The texture seems to thicken somewhat as the piece proceeds, but it never coarsens or overwhelms. The harmonies are constantly in motion, but slowly unpack without disturbing their inherent reflective sensibility. While this might seem to be a formula for tedium, the results are beguiling and powerfully expressive. This is soothing music—better experienced than described—always welcoming and full of comfort.

“Although long at 73 minutes, and with an almost featureless structure save for the harmonic variations, Separation Songsconstantly engages the listener. The smoothly familiar sounds glide peacefully along, continuous in their calm assurance and sustaining solace—a process that never gets tiresome. Separation Songssucceeds in refining its source material so that their essential powers of assurance and consolation are beautifully extended and artfully realized.” —Paul Muller, Sequenza21