An innocent, unassuming minor triad opens Missy Mazzoli’s captivating 2010 work for the string quartet entitled Death Valley Junction. As listeners, we are struck with the pure beauty of sound emitted from the string instruments, which here is featured due to the pure quality of non vibrato playing. The opening suggests a story that will slowly unravel. It moves from one musical event to the other with careful determination, the next event reacting in an almost lethargic, understated manner. In contrast to the pure non vibrato playing are moments of terrifying aggressiveness, with more vibrato than a single note can handle and quite a bit of bow pressure. The upper voices, mostly scored in the violins, feature an almost speech-like vocal quality, as if the musicians are communicating with us directly. Meanwhile, the lower voices, viola and cello, provide a firm grounding: a textural accompaniment well-suited for the violin protagonists. Pulsating chords and aggressive rhythms permeate much of the piece in the lower register. This texture lets up only occasionally. For the most part, this texture remains throughout. I heard colors of Steve Reich and Debussy within Mazzoli’s writing, harmonically, rhythmically and thematically.
What struck me most about Death Valley Junction was a use of narrative form based in the placement of the climactic moments within the piece and their proportional relationship to one another in terms of density, intensity and narrative context. The piece features a compositional form which works in the composer’s favor to pull the audience into her world, taking them on a action filled journey that utilizes tension and release to create a suspenseful narrative. Death Valley Junction is not a piece intended to wash over the listener, rather, it invites the listener to become an intrinsic part of the story as it unfolds, as if we were placed in the story itself. Mazzoli’s writing, because of its use of tension and release, suggests an immersive musical experience that demands active listening from its audience. Meanwhile, it is music that can stand on its own; it “speaks for itself” without the aid of a programmatic title or visual art/film to aid in its storytelling.
While there are many topographical points of interest along the way, the overall structure of the piece reaches its climax in a section of the piece which begins exactly at 5:28 (according to the time stamp provided by YouTube). In this section, which lasts from 5:28 to 6:40, we experience the most rapid rate of change between different musical material, the highest points of rhythmic intensity within the piece, the most dense harmonies (featuring a beautiful Ebmaj7#9#11 chord at 5:44) and the greatest use instrumental range. However, the most interesting aspect of this section of the piece is the fact that it begins at the Golden Ratio in terms of its chronological placement within the work itself. If we analyze the beginning of the new section (5:28) in terms of the golden ratio, we can find the section begins at the Golden Ratio “moment” of the piece; in other words, the moment exactly between “a” and “b” in the diagram below. If we translate the YouTube time stamp into the number of seconds that have elapsed since the beginning of the piece, we can find that this moment occurs 328 seconds from the beginning of the piece (here labeled as “a”) and 204 seconds from the end (here labeled as “b”). Entered into the equation below, we see that the ratio of the two sections equals 1.60784314…, remarkably close to the “golden” 1.618 value.
This detail may likely play into what Mazzoli values most in her musical work. She may deem the golden ratio (either consciously or unconsciously) to be an excellent attribute that is aesthetically pleasing to the ear, the apollonian brain, and the dionysian emotional psyche. However, we cannot say whether she intended to employ the use of the Golden Ratio, or if it appeared naturally as a result of her basic human aesthetic instincts. Although the Golden Ratio can be found in numerous different cultures and civilizations throughout world history, and of course in nature, Mazzoli’s use of the golden ration here ties her strongly to the Western classical tradition; it’s use in Western art can be dated back to the Acropolis of ancient Greece, and has considered a standard of aesthetic beauty, in all artistic practices ever since.
Provided to YouTube by NAXOS of America
Death Valley Junction · Jasper String Quartet
℗ 2017 Sono Luminus
Released on: 2017-03-17