String Quartet for Six Players, 1976 – 2023
November – December 2023
Out in LA, Stephen Prina has been the quintessential master of “the difficult” and “the serious”. He has been the go-to guy that guides unseasoned attention payers to sit dutifully through hours-long, seemingly uneventful performances or to delight over brutally unconventional works. Conversely he is known for applying his precision and patience as an erudite examiner of form to the most brutally conventional, in other words he is adept at, and even infamous for, making the low high.
You’d think that people would’ve had enough of silly love songs, I look around me and I see it isn’t so. Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs, and what’s wrong with that, he’d like to know (he being former Beatle, Paul McCartney circa 1976) ‘cause here he goes again: I love you I love you I love you I love you!
“Silly Love Songs” surged from the pop faucet at number one the same year legendary artist, musician and educator, Stephen Prina, composed —at the tender age of 21— the serious-minded but not entirely un-silly String Quartet for Six Players. Today’s audience can relish the fact that mature Prina has not shied away from pop or the penning of love songs though it’s been noted that at the time of this first ambitious composition, Prina was contemplating what music might be like after the likes of Schönberg and Cage.
The veritable opposite of the canonized vanguard that inspired Prina’s creative curiosity and structural daring, Quartet in D Minor is a popular chamber music piece Mozart composed as an homage to his friend and mentor Joseph Haydn. It is moody with a substantive dose of Sturm und Drang, portions of which were allegedly inspired by the sound of Mozart’s wife giving birth to their first child in the next room. Prina has not hacked it to bits in a juvenile display of disrespect but rather subjected it to chance in a way that both expands and elegantly disfigures the composition. I believe even casual listeners can comfortably straddle a flawless original and the promise of its infinite mutation. The mutation itself is created by turning the conductor into a dice man who instructs one player at a time to return to the start of the score. So the guy holding everybody together has to continue holding everybody together even as he instructs them to stray. The result of this precise yet chance unravelling is borderline psychedelic, opening up a dimension of the score that feels like a glimpse into “The Library of Babel” — where every constellation of marks and their subsequent meaning spiral upward in endless configurations of meaning and nonsense, a Borgesian homage to the profound malleability of the shape of human consciousness itself.
Frances Stark, November 2023
[When Frances Stark witnessed the world première of String Quartet for Six Players, at Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna, in 2013, she already had made a commitment to inhabit Mozart’s The Magic Flute for a film she realized in 2017.]