By David Templeton | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Over the course of its 28 years, the Pacifica Quartet has tackled many musical challenges, testing its already impressive core skill sets in countless ways. But until now, with the release of the extraordinary American Stories—a breathtaking collaboration with clarinetist Anthony McGill—the two-time Grammy-winning ensemble has never been asked to sound like Muhammad Ali pummeling an opponent in the boxing ring.
A striking example of the ensemble’s mastery of interpretation and the players’ clear eagerness to try new things, American Stories simultaneously stretches the Pacifica Quartet as performers while inviting listeners to adjust their own expectations of what music is and can do. Featuring compositions by Richard Danielpour, James Lee III, Benjamin J. Shirley, and Valerie Coleman, the pieces have in common a stunning command of narrative. Danielpour’s Four Angels addresses the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Lee’s Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet moves further back through time into the lives, dances, and communal gatherings of Native Americans, as Shirley’s High Sierra Sonata conjures images as disparate as Los Angeles’ Skid Row and the changing light and weather of an Eastern Sierra ultra-marathon foot race. It is in Coleman’s Shotgun Houses that Muhammad Ali appears, in a series of movements taking the iconic prizefighter from the streets of West Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1950s to the 1960 Olympics in Rome, as the fighter, then known as Cassius Clay, steps into the ring and takes his next step toward immortality and greatness.
“Basically, American Stories is about the idea of storytelling and identity and what it means to be an American,” explains violist Mark Holloway, as all four members gather for a Zoom conversation from Bloomington, Indiana, where they have been the string quartet in residence at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music since 2012.
The album, which was born of conversations with McGill, a frequent collaborator with the Pacifica Quartet, was recorded in September 2021. After a handful of days spent rehearsing the pieces, it took the five musicians just three days in the studio, working from 10 am to 5 pm, to complete the recording.
“We did take a lunch break too,” adds Holloway with a smile.
Though that might sound lightning-fast to some, to these seasoned musicians, such efficiency and speed is simply the result of years of experience and a strong familiarity with the style and brilliance of McGill. Currently the principal clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic, for which he broke ground as the first Black principal musician in the organization’s history, McGill is the 2020 recipient of the Avery Fisher Prize and is a frequent solo and chamber music performer in the United States and around the world.
“The Pacifica Quartet has played a lot with Anthony,” says Austin Hartman, violinist. “So, whenever we get together, the collaboration is always seamless. It comes right together.”
“And when you are recording,” offers Holloway, “there’s always the concern of having diminishing returns if you spend too much time on a single piece, just recording and recording. You still want it to sound fresh.”
“We’ve been playing with Anthony for many years, playing Brahms, Mozart, a lot of things,” says violinist Simin Ganatra. “The connection between our strings and Anthony’s clarinet is just incredible. It feels like we have another string player in the group. It’s a special collaboration, which is another reason we really wanted to do this project.”
“I think our sound is definitely influenced by playing with the sound of a clarinet,” says cellist Brandon Vamos. “His sound in particular. He has such a variety of color. I think it’s good for a string quartet to play with other instruments and allow that to influence the way we play.”
Asked how American Stories came to be, Vamos explains, “We were talking about recording with Anthony, and he came out to where we were rehearsing, and we started brainstorming different repertoire. Anthony mentioned Ben Shirley, and we started talking about other pieces and listening to some things that Anthony had been playing, and once the repertoire started coming together, we realized that every piece told a unique story, each one telling a different side of the American experience.”
“The Lee might have been the kernel for that,” suggests Holloway of the four-movement composition, including “Forgotten Emblems,” “Awashoha,” “Alas, My Identity,” and “Celebrated Emblems.” “It deals explicitly with identity,” he says of the expansive 2018 piece, “in this case Black individuals and also Native Americans, and there was some crossover and mixture between them in their identities and cultures in that period.”
According to Holloway, the idea for the composition came when Lee visited the National Museum in London and caught an exhibit of photographs of Black and Indigenous people in the American West. He recognized that there was a story there that was not being told, and certainly rarely, if ever, explored in contemporary music. “And it just so happened,” he says, “that all of the other pieces we liked related to that same idea of storytelling and identity.”
Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet is receiving its world-premiere recording as part of American Stories, as is Four Angels and High Sierra Sonata.
Coleman’s Shotgun Houses, recorded earlier in collaboration with the Harlem String Quartet and clarinetist David Shifrin, not only fits the storytelling theme, it provides some of the most impressive moments on the album. At times, one recognizes that for performers to interpret these kinds of works is as sheerly dramatic an accomplishment as it is a musical triumph. Asked if they allow themselves to see the stories as they are playing such pieces, actually imagining Muhammad Ali in the rings as they play, all four players confirm that that’s the goal.
“Especially in that one, you hear the bell between the rounds of the fight, and the music takes you through the fight step by step, so for sure, that’s a part of it,” says Hartman. “You see the jabs as you’re playing. You imagine those punches in your head, so the rhythm of the music is definitely connected to the storyline.”
There is specific progression in the piece, says Vamos.
“The first movement, ‘Shotgun Houses,’ is talking about the community itself, where Muhammad Ali grew up, and the second movement is actually talking more about Ali’s relationship with his mother, very much inspired by photographs of the two of them together,” he says. “So yes, there’s a physicality to the music that we can’t help but feel as we play, but there’s also that heart, the enormous heart of Ali and also about the people and places that influenced him.”
The question of how much the players imagine the story as they are performing a piece like this as opposed to how technically focused their brains are comes up again. “I think,” says Hartman, “we tend to think technically in our rehearsals, to try to align things and tune them and get them together, but then, after that, it’s all storytelling, it’s all physical. It’s character and color and communicating with the audience. In concert certainly, but also in a recording, you really try to convey character. With this, there’s such vivid imagery to play with.”
The same is true of all the compositions on American Stories.
“In the first movement of the Lee,” says Ganatra, “there are a series of eighth notes that continue all the way through. I don’t know about you guys, but I always imagine in Native American dance there are the bells and the jewelry on their shoes that make this amazing music. I’m always thinking of that.”
“And with Four Angels,” Vamos remarks, “it is such a touching and sad story, a tragic story, that of course you can’t help but be affected by the music. The way it begins is very haunting, very touching. And then it explodes with this cello, with minor seconds and chords that clash showing the strife and struggle, and it all resolves beautifully with the embrace of the idea of angels, these four girls who were taken from the world.”
The storytelling demands are more than just internal in Shirley’s High Sierra Sonata, which the composer indicates must begin with the sound of breathing and the rustling of the bodies of the musicians. The written music indicates this with the words, “Waking up in the morning” and “breathing.”
“We did a couple of takes,” recalls Holloway, “and we were saying, ‘Are we sure we got that?’ Another interesting thing about the Shirley is that, yes, we’re telling a story, but the way the composer is telling the story is partly through the adversity he’s experienced. He went through some serious struggles with homelessness and drugs and that gives way to this landscape of the Sierras and nature. It’s an amazing and beautiful picture.”
In the album’s liner notes, McGill adds his own ideas about music and storytelling. “Through music we connect with our stories,” he writes. “Music opens a pathway for us to empathize with each other and be present in our shared humanity. Through music we communicate our different identities and, when they are presented together, embrace the beauty that lies in the diversity of sound and story.”
Asked to guess what listeners might see in their own minds, what stories they’ll imagine—possibly without necessarily knowing the details and inspiration of each movement—Hartman says, “With most of the music we play, we hope that people will find their own imagery, and if it aligns with what the composer envisioned, then even better.”
Though American Stories was recorded over a year ago, the quartet believes the timing of its release is perfect and makes its conception so many months ago feel all the more serendipitous. “When a project like this comes along, it feels like a very special moment,” says Ganatra. “All the stars aligned to make this possible.”
As for how the process of making this album has influenced or changed the musicians as players, as tellers of stories, or just as human beings, Holloway ends the conversation with another nod to Shotgun Houses. With a smile, he says, “My boxing got a lot better.”