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Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

String Quartet + Electronics + Room Tone (MP3)

The drone is a form, not an instrument. And even if oscilators and synthesizers have helped popularize it as a technique by bringing sine waves to the general public, it predates those technologies. Heck, it predates electricity. Zachary James Watkins reminds us of this in his serrated-ethereal Suite for String Quartet. Not only does it milk the trepidation of all those string vibrating at once to achieve a rich drone, but it adds signal processing and an attention to the acoustic properties of the room in which it was recorded (MP3).

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It opens with car noise, water, and a thick industrial hum — not industrial like nihilist industrial music; it’s industrial like a heavy duty HVAC on its last legs. To hear that hum suddenly turn into, or reveal itself to be, a string section a little over a minute into the quartet is a wonderful thing, and reason enough to hang around for the nearly half hour it takes to cycle through the numerous brief movements that contribute to its suite structure. What’s remarkable about the digital processing is that the electronics are intended not to subdue the strings, but to draw a connection between their hum and the more common, contemporaneous hum of extended electric performance.

Watkins makes the most of those strings by altering their harmonic tendencies: “Each string of the quartet is retuned to an odd number partial of 60Hz,” he writes in a brief liner note that accompanies the MP3, and which may help explain the intense friction that at times occurs. The recording was made at the Second Annual May Day! New Music Marathon in Seattle on May 1 of this year. The performers are Brad Hawkins (cello), Eyvind Kang (viola), Paris Hurley (violin), and Brandon Vance (violin), with Watkins on unspecified electronics.

Track originally posted at touchradio.org.uk. More on Watkins at zacharyjameswatkins.com. Previous disquiet.com coverage of Watkins focused on a mysterious, formless sound that challenged the ear by providing no proper context.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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