A Dark Masterpiece From the Del Sol String Quartet and Guitarist Gyan Riley
The Del Sol String Quartet’s gorgeously brooding, aptly titled Dark Queen Mantra with guitarist Gyan Riley came out in 2016 and is streaming at Spotify. It’s a great album to listen to with the lights out – hypnotic in places, but with a tightly coiling intensity. It contains three debut recordings: Terry Riley’s title triptych and concluding sixteen-minute “waltz,” along with cult favorite microtonal composer Stefano Scodanibbio’s Mas Lugares, inspired by a Monteverdi madrigal.
This music spans several different genres: there are moments that are pure 70s psychedelic art-rock, others that strongly bring to mind Philip Glass at his darkest. As the title track’s first part, Vizcaino begins, the guitar launches into an eerie downward chromatic theme, then variations on a flamencoish riff while the strings pulse in response. Riley calls, they respond, they echo, sometimes all joining together. Eventually they reach a quietly marionettish interlude enhanced by an unusual and welcome amount of reverb for a string quartet recording, the guitar a darkly bubbling presence amid the quartet’s insistence.
Part two, Goya With Wings develops from uneasily disjointed, hazy resonance contrasting with the younger Riley’s lingering, minimalist incisions, to a slowly staggered, pensive ballad that coalesces in the epic third movement after a guitarless bit. Riley’s return signals a moodily circling variation on the simmering opening theme, this time the quartet taking the lead, steady eight-note riffs popping up like evil gremlins in every corner of the sonic picture. Riley’s precise, distorted spirals lead down to a circular Indian carnatic theme; it ends unresolved.
The rest of the album isn’t anywhere near as dark. Scodanibbio’s five-part suite begins with what could be a Nordic dance, steadily pulsing eight-note echo phrases from the quartet’s individual members – violinists Benjamin Kreith and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee and cellist Kathryn Bates. It has little if anything in common with Italian Renaissance polyphony, but the other sections do, their surrealistic, metrically tricky paraphrases keening with harmonic overtones. Flight motives and haze alternate in the third movement, with an Iranian tinge.
The quartet open the elder Riley’s Tibetan-inspired Wheel & Mythic Birds Waltz with tense close harmonies, a morning theme punctuated by swoops, plucks and the occasional anthemic riff. Suddenly the birds take flight, with distant Middle Eastern and jazz allusions, Riley was close to eighty when he wrote both works here: the contemporary classical icon and godfather of American minimalism shows no sign of slowing down. Both his son and the quartet revel in the music’s constantly shifting idioms.