“Patagon” = CINDY COX: Elegy for Solo Violin; Columba aspexit; Patagon – Alexander String Q. – Foghorn Classics

“Patagon” = CINDY COX: Elegy for Solo Violin; Columba aspexit; Patagon – Alexander String Q. – Foghorn Classics CD2015, 56:00 [Distr. by Allegro] (10/30/15) *****:

You want the short review? This is the best new music disc I have heard this year, and you should buy it.  That was for those of you shopping and caught up in the Christmas season. Now for the details.

I am ashamed to say that I did not know of Cindy Cox before this disc came my way. Her pedigree is quite impressive and her accomplishments numerous and substantial, and she currently occupies the position of Professor and Chair of the Music Department at UC Berkeley—I’m not surprised. The association with the Alexander String Quartet goes back some years and she and they are both San Francisco Bay Area natives. This disc is the fruit of that relationship.

Her music is not avantgarde by any stretch of the imagination, and its influences, conscious or otherwise, are quite varied. But neither is it simple or populist, though tonality of some type runs through all of it. I don’t see how this music could exist without the Bartok Fifth Quartet, the Shostakovich Eighth Quartet, much of Sibelius (and perhaps because of her love of place and nature there is a sense of haunted vastness that pervades much of this music, even in chamber form), and believe it or not, the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia leapt out at me during one passage! These are not direct reminiscences or anything like verbatim quotes, but the spiritual essence of these other composers find their way into Cox’s world.

She makes extensive use of what used to be called “extended techniques”, at the time a code word for “head for the door” since so many composers were just trying to expand our listening habits no matter how ugly the sounds. With Cox, her employment of these are tasteful, nor for shock value, and what is most important, they are completely integral to the emotive content of the music.

This disc begins with the 1990 Elegie for solo violin, a haunting piece done for a young man who was a friend of the composer during their student days at Indiana University in Bloomington. This piece leaps into the beginning of her first quartet, Columba aspexit, based on a chant by the twelfth-century visionary and mystic Hildegard von Bingen. The chant is used as putty for a potter, the spiritual aspects of the music taking precedence over mere material manipulation, the results quite affecting and beautiful. The real reason for this disc is the second quartet composed directly for the Alexander, Patagon, the ancient name for Patagonia, that small, barely-populated area at the tail end of South America shared by Argentina and Chile. The nature and landscape of the area is what inspired the composer on a sabbatical trip to the region in 2011. It is a very colorful and exotic work, extremely descriptive in each of the five movements (“The southern sea”, “The sleeping warm earth”, “Southern right whales and Magellanic penguins”, “The sleeping cold earth”, and “The southern cross and the revolving sky”), redolent of the lonely individual when confronted with the surprising majesty of unknown regions.

Cox seems to have a thing for quartet writing, and if she stops at two it will be a tragedy. Color, exquisite rhythmic turns, evocative harmonies, and coalescence of melodic invention all conspire to make her music richly rewarding and horizon-expanding. The Alexander plays perfectly, and the Foghorn sound is great. An enthusiastic recommendation!

—Steven Ritter

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