Tartar Lamb 60 Metonymies

[Public Eyesore; 2007]

Styles: contemporary composition, abstract violin, electro-acoustic
Others: C. Spencer Yeh, Szely, Gyorgy Ligeti, Rune Grammafon stuff

I once had a professor who said the main difference between tonal and atonal music is predictability. This perhaps obvious statement helped me realize why I enjoy modern composition more than anything pre-20th century: the newer stuff packs so many surprises, and many of them are downright scary. Offering many of these surprises is Tartar Lamb, a quartet assembled by violinist Mia Matsumiya. With 60 Metonymies, he and his collaborators have created a lovely work that has all the succulent unpredictability of a long-awaited (and abrupt) first kiss.

The violin is truly the prima donna of the piece, a plaintive, impetuous voice that gives the album its emotional pitch. The guitar offers more inquisitive, cautious phrases, and the horn flutters on the fringe. Anchored in a pulsing circle of reverbed guitar, these instruments pivot and surge on swells of drum and cymbal. The musicians here are talented enough to sound both tight and adventurous; they do an impressive job of letting pretty moments endure just long enough that their subsequent disruption becomes a pleasure in itself.

The first movement opens with a revelatory “A-ha! The butler did it!” kind of feeling. Over the next 11 minutes, the drama is found in the repetitive buildup of tensions that find no release. This absence of resolution persists throughout 60 Metonymies and keeps it interesting, despite the lack of narrative arc that it entails. (We never find out if the butler really did do it. In fact, the butler might be a vacuum cleaner). At the start of the second movement, a pizzicato melody tiptoes over gently ringing guitar tones and the errant clattering of cymbals before the bow is put back on the strings. The violin, guitar, and horn seem to be a three-headed monster looking for ways to split itself in the stop-and-start ruckus of the drums.

In the third movement, Driver plays a few melodies that sound like they actually belong to a scale, and also introduces some choice overdubbing of his violin, yielding a handful of particularly poignant passages. Other new, ambiguous sounds briefly slip into the mix: hard to tell if that pattering is the shuffling of cards, rain on a tin roof, or just a clever manipulation of a snare drum. In the last movement, Driver teases out frail notes in the higher registers, making his violin sound almost like a flute. Throughout these irregular shifts, he and his collaborators sustain the complex mood of anticipation and melancholy they created in the piece’s first few seconds.

Thanks to both skillful musicianship and good writing, 60 Metonymies is imbued with emotion despite an impressive amount of restraint exercised throughout. It never feels indulgent or wonky, but it’s not too polite, either. It poses the most effective kind of threat: one that never has to be realized. This threat is exactly what enables Driver & Co. to put the beauty of unpredictability to work.

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