Ha-Yang Kim’s string quartet Threadsuns begins with a rupture. It is a threshold moment — the sound of scraping strings, like a heavy door inexorably swinging on creaking hinges. But is this door flying open or slamming shut? Is this an originating bang, the sound of creation, or a cataclysmic event, an extinction?
Threadsuns was composed originally in 2008, revised in 2012, and is performed on this 2014 release from Tzadik by the New York-based JACK Quartet. The work is named after a poem by Paul Celan, the Jewish writer, born in 1920, who spent time in Romanian labor camps between 1942 and 1944, but fared better than his parents, who were deported to German-occupied Ukraine and did not survive the war.
Threadsuns is divided into three movements. The first opens with a chain of self-contained, thorny, abstract passages punctuated by silence. The effect is of dark light cutting through darker space, echoing these lines from Celan: “Among my stars are drifting now the torn/ strings of a strident and discordant harp.”1 Soon, a direct, elegiac melody is introduced on John Pickford Richards’ viola. Richards shifts to circular, repeating patterns, and one of the high-toned violins picks up the lead. Eventually Kevin McFarland’s cello — which has been droning heavily below — rises up into a complementary melody, and for the first time Threadsuns blossoms into an overwhelming, clear beauty.
Ha-Yang Kim has said that Threadsuns grew out of the image of the sun and the idea that something whole can be “obliterated to countless threads, drifting through infinite space and time.” This notion is best represented in Threadsuns’ second and most challenging movement. Here, the quartet plays long, lingering tones, unspooling across the silence around them. But in the words of Kim, “there exists the possibility for the threads to come together and merge as one,” like interstellar dust expelled in the drawn-out death of a star, and recongregated in a nebula where new bodies are formed. This is what happens at the close of Threadsuns’ second movement: the strings wander individually for nearly 13 minutes until the cello and viola converge in a single weighty gesture, a funereal march.
This mournful atmosphere continues in the final movement, the work’s most accessible and elegant. In Threadsuns’ final five minutes, Kim introduces a timeless, ascending progression, like a proud stone memorial, sturdy and solemn, that will abide.
Which brings us back to the question: is this the sound of creation or extinction, a work of elation or lament? As we get from “Threadsuns,” Celan’s poem — which serves as an epigraph in the liner notes for this recording — the answer is both:
Above the grayblack wastes.
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond
In an interview with Jeremiah Cymerman, Kim spoke about music’s ability to transpose sadness into transcendence. In short, pain channeled into song can arouse the affirmation of living. Or, to quote Rilke, who Celan admired and likely Kim too: “stunned Space” — after upheaval — “then, in that void, vibrations” — like those of a bowed string — “which for us now are rapture and solace and help.”3
1. From “Winter,” translated by John Felstiner.
2. Translated by Pierre Joris.
3. From the Duino Elegies, “The First Elegy,” translated by Edward Snow.