Blending Old & New Folk Sounds
Restless Nation: The Music of Andy Teirstein Cassatt String Quartet; Marco Ambrosini, nychelharpa; Mivos String Quartet; Yair Dalal, oud. Andy Teirstein, dulcimer, harmonica. Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiri Petrdlik Navona Records 6396 Total Time: 64:00 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
Andy Teirstein is a bit of a modern Renaissance man. His music may be familiar to some from his various scores for the BBC and PBS, but he has numerous concert pieces including a couple of operas. He has appeared in acting roles on Broadway, television and film, and also was a musician playing with Paul Simon and Pete Seeger among others. Teirstein was a composition student of both Leonard Bernstein and Henry Brant. He seems to have melded the interest in popular music forms into classical genres from the former with a sense of harmonic exploration from the latter. In this new release, we get to hear three somewhat intimate pieces for string quartet that show this expansion of the genre itself by incorporating folk instruments, rhythms, and melodies. It lends the music a bit of a global quality that attempts to transcend its source material. Three of these works demonstrate his approaches in the quartet genre, slowly moving us from a traditional ensemble to an expanded one. The album also includes a little orchestral suite to wrap things up.
The opening piece, Restless Nation, is for a traditional string quartet. A burst of nervous energy has a semi-minimalist feel at first but soon there are echoes of folkish melodic shape and sound. The former eventually bursts forth as a quotation of the fiddle tune “The Hangman’s Reel” in the final movement. A bit of that Scottish snap rhythm comes forward in the penultimate movement as we move closer to his source folk tune inspiration. Moments of calm provide a glimpse at Teirstein’s lyrical writing, but the work is filled with intriguing, syncopated rhythms that provide a continuous sense of forward motion.
Secrets of the North was inspired by an Isak Dinesen story and this is a suite extracted from a larger work that also included narration and other folk instruments. The nine brief movements here feature a Nyckelharpa, a bowed Swedish instrument that is a distant cousin of a Hurdy-gurdy. This provides the music with a distinct ancient feel with its sound adding a more modal harmonic quality. The music has the feel of ancient Renaissance dances as a result. It is a distinct shift in sound that again blends the modern sound of contemporary string quartet writing with a more folkish style.
For Azazme Songs, Teirstein shifts gears to Middle Eastern inflections by incorporating an oud as well as a dulcimer. The latter is a sort of substitute aurally for another strummed psaltery-like Arabic instrument. Across the four movements, we get a somewhat intimate set of impressions that explore the unique sounds of these instruments coupled creating an interesting sonic landscape. The small cells of material provide an interesting, repeated hook that alternate with thematic ideas. The music here tends to come the closest to popular folk music at times.
The final work on the album is for harmonica and orchestra. Letter From Woody was inspired by a love letter that the composer found in the Woody Guthrie archives. Also from an extended theatrical work, this piece also explores some of the folk performance techniques that appeared in the opening quartet now writ large across a larger ensemble. The music here starts out quite folk-like but moves more into a contemporary feel. That said, there are some humorous musical quotations that appear in the score and connect well to the implied story behind the text.
Teirstein’s music is quite accessible and his incorporation of folk and global music gestures are integrated into a more composite hybrid sound melded into his personal style. The music has that global music feel while also staying firmly rooted in more contemporary concert music. Those familiar with the early developments of New Age music that appeared in the 1980s will discover here that next step with music that has its feet in the concert hall but reaches out to expand to new realms.
Performances throughout are excellent with a nice blend of the quartets with their respective solo instrument. The nyckelharpa seems like an instrument that has a softer quality and that comes through well here (part of this is also due to Teirstein’s compositional approach that helps draw this out). An interesting release of mostly chamber music with that global touch. The album is available in both a physical cardboard blister pack as well as a digital download.