Composer Matthew Aucoin is only 29 but already he’s hit the big time: commissions for the Metropolitan Opera, American Repertory Theatre, major orchestras and the 2018 MacArthur “genius” grant. But the world premiere of his string quartet, which the Brentano Quartet will perform this Sunday at Union College’s Memorial Chapel, is a milestone for him.
“The quartet (“Soft Power”) that the Brentano premiered last year was only six to seven minutes long,” Aucoin said. “This piece I consider to be my first quartet. It’s longer at 25 minutes. What I learned from the first piece is how frightening it is . . . there’s nowhere to hide. It’s all uniform — all strings. It’s not like the orchestra where you’re working with colors. This is four voices with similar textures.”
Undaunted, Aucoin started work on what he determined would be three movements last spring and finished this summer.
“I wanted to write the juiciest, richest piece in the most impactful way that would be like a mega voice . . . not four voices but one voice,” he said. “It was not about a rational balance in harmony but to treat it all as one unit. That’s why I love the Brentano. They’ve been playing together for 25 years and they speak as one voice.”
That the relationship between the quartet and the composer is one of mutual respect is part of the reason Aucoin was commissioned.
Derek Delaney, the Union College Concert Series artistic director, said in an email that in 2015 the series had been looking to premiere a work for the 2017-2018 season. Aucoin’s name came up during a post-concert dinner with the Brentano.
“I was looking to commission our very first work . . . and asked them who they were interested in,” Delaney said. “They mentioned Matt and I listened to some of his music and said ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
Because of his commitments, Aucoin could only give them a short piece for the designated season, but promised that he could provide them with a more substantial piece for the 2019-2020 season.
“I went for it,” Delaney said. “We were the sole commissioner for ‘Soft Power,’ and the lead commissioner for this string quartet in a consortium of Carnegie Hall, La Jolla Music Society (San Diego), and Da Camera of Houston. We’ll hear it first. Our budget is a fraction of these other national series. It’s a huge accomplishment for us and a testament to our quality.”
This commission is considered so important to the music industry that Ara Guzelimian, the dean of the Juilliard School and new artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival (CA), will be part of a pre-concert discussion at 2 p.m. with the artists on Sunday.
Aucoin is especially excited about how his work turned out — “It was a huge experiment.” His inspiration was the different kinds of human attention and how it changes.
Working at the piano, he started with a pile of sketches that are “tiny molecules of rhythms or harmonic cells. What does it want to become? It’s like a virus.”
His first movement was to convey a sense of mindlessness.
“It’s equivalent to scrolling. There’s the same rhythmic pattern — are we stuck? — then it stops as if the mind wakes up,” he said.
In fact he did get stuck compositionally. When the same idea kept spinning in place, he accepted that until it told him how it wanted to change. Sort of like letting the unconscious or subconscious mind do its thing.
“The results are often unexpected,” Aucoin said.
The second movement is the opposite: obsessive attention uptempo with lots of energy — “Like the way I compose.” The third is a happy medium.
“It’s meditative, cyclical, long lines that grow slowly in intensity with a calm focus,” Aucoin said. “There’s a broader tempo and sweep.”
The Brentano will balance this new work with Mozart’s Quartet in E-flat Major and Ravel’s Quartet in F Major.
Union College Concert Series with Brentano Quartet
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday Nov. 3
WHERE: Memorial Chapel
HOW MUCH: $35 ($40 at the door); students, free
MORE INFO: 518-388-6080; www.unioncollegeconcerts.org