By Greg Cahill | From the September-October 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
Beethoven’s works have been performed in a number of acoustically unique environments, from the Gothic-inspired Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City to the Luray Caverns in Virginia. But Slow Beethoven (Round Sound) is one of the most unusual to date. Two years ago, former Kronos cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, music director of the National Sawdust Ensemble, led a string quartet through a dramatically slowed-down reworking of the fugue movement of the maestro’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, at National Sawdust, a performance space built in a former sawdust factory in Brooklyn. That’s quirky enough, but what makes Slow Beethoven even more unusual is that the performance was streamed from New York to a remote Western desert and filtered through the Tank Center for Sonic Arts, a nonprofit recording studio and concert venue constructed inside an abandoned seven-story-tall, 600,000-gallon water tank located in Rangely, Colorado. The music was arranged specifically to maximize the impact of the Tank’s deep, swirling natural reverb that sustains sounds up to 43 seconds. The result: The recording of that usually seven-minute work, stretched to 44 minutes, is otherworldly.
Yet, before launching this ambitious project, Zeigler had never heard a performance personally from inside the resonant water tank. “Believe it or not, I still have yet to set foot in the space!” he says. “I sincerely hope to make it out there one day soon.”
Strings asked Zeigler about the story behind this unusual, haunting recording.
How and when was this unorthodox project conceived?
Prior to the pandemic, I was approached by the Tank with an idea. Bruce Odland, chair of the board of the Tank, asked me to assemble a string quartet to perform Beethoven slowed down to an extremely stretched-out tempo inside the Tank in order to allow the listener to bathe in the acoustics of the space. But like so many plans hatched prior to the pandemic, ours, too, needed to adapt. Since 2013, I have been in self-proclaimed retirement from string quartets since leaving Kronos. If I were to step back into this space, it would need to be for a really good idea—and this project definitely hit the mark.
How did you first learn about the Tank?
The Tank began to appear on my radar shortly before they reached out to me. I had read about a few of their projects and found their work quite fascinating.
What impressed you about the Tank’s acoustics?
If I may borrow from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—a number. But instead of 42, it was 43, which is the number of seconds that the reverb lasts inside the tank. But in addition to the length, based upon my listening, the decay is quite slow, which lends to the feeling of extreme sostenuto. You can also hear how the sound activates an array of harmonics that makes each passing moment feel like the sound itself is alive.
Why did you choose this particular string quartet?
The idea was always Beethoven. Although not especially highlighted, I always felt that this project was meant to be a very clever way of celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday. At that time, folks all over the world were making plans to commemorate the birthday, and I had a feeling this project would stand apart from the rest. In 2021, I brought together some of my favorite players in New York: violinists Lara St. John and Miranda Cuckson, and violist Milan Milisavljević. We kicked around several ideas and read through a number of quartets, including from his early and middle periods. The two that really stood out in the end were Opus 131 and the Cavatina from Opus 130. We ended up recording both. I sincerely hope that folks will one day be able to hear our Cavatina.
You had to slow the music down considerably. What were the challenges of that? Who arranged the score?
To say that it was mentally and physically demanding is an understatement. One of the things we discovered was that we needed to do each movement in whole takes. There are no splices in this recording. Also, as one can imagine, maintaining tempo was truly a gargantuan test of our discipline. Your mind begins to play tricks on you, and so it was a challenge to stay focused so consistently and for so long. With such long takes—nearly an hour each—I think we were all ready to collapse at the end of the session!
There was no need to make an arrangement because we were reading straight from the original score. In fact, rather than parts, we needed to read from the score to make sure that we never slowly veered off course.
What did the sonic treatment add to the performance that couldn’t have been accomplished through electronic delay?
Because we were no longer able to travel to the Tank [due to pandemic restrictions], we devised a plan to meet at National Sawdust in Brooklyn. National Sawdust has an exceptional audio system, and so we were able to use software to send our sound directly to the Tank and have our sound piped in through their high-end speaker system. That sound was then sent back to National Sawdust, which allowed us to hear the live reverb with virtually no latency. It was so live that we could even hear the wind and the sound of birds chirping. It was really cool!
As we were recording, we were able to communicate with the team at the Tank via Zoom. Each take was a time warp—it would take almost an hour, but from our perspective, it felt like time had stopped. Each time I went over to check in with the Colorado team, they looked devastated [by the music] and were sometimes even in tears.
Will you ever run a different piece of music through this treatment in the future?
It is an interesting idea to bring the listener on an emotionally complex journey through extreme long form. And although one feels completely suspended in time, each moment feels strangely familiar. Endurance, ritual, and temporal possibilities are all on my mind now, enhanced by this experience. Yes, I think there is quite a bit more to discover.