Steven Mackey’s Ars Moriendi, the featured work on this disc, is about strokes, defibrillators, and dying, but don’t let that drive you off. This is splendidly composed string music, with much depth and innovation. It begins with a driving ostinato, music composed to approximate Mackey’s father’s labored breathing. For the first two minutes, you’ll think you’re listening to one of Morton Feldman’s denser works. But the mood breaks and a succession of lyrical figures appear. Primarily a programmatic work, Ars Moriendi is divided into nine sections with titles like “a peculiar spice,” “Fibrillation,” and “Londonderry Air.” Some refer to elements in his father’s life, such as the conclusion, a masterful valedictory incorporating fragments of the man’s favorite tune, “Danny Boy.”
“Fibrillation” is one scary interlude, using series of two low notes to portray the paddles being applied to his father’s chest. It then seamlessly leads into the nostalgic “Londonderry Air.” It’s a harrowing work, riveting in the same way as Arnold Schoenberg’s String Trio (which was about the composer’s heart attack). The other two works are lighter in tone, more similar to his electric guitar concerto, Tuck and Roll. ‘Lude incorporates a formalistic tribute to Bach’s “Contrapunctus XI” from Die Kunst der Fuge (BWV 1080). Yet sudden surges in tempo and dynamics wrest the work into the modern era, along with Mackey’s characteristic brash chords. Then bits of humor creep in: impish pizzicatos, sprightly themes, and one spectacular Beethovian false ending. It’s a clever and diverting work, but maybe not on the level of the final piece, Gaggle and Flock. While the initial rhythms do invoke large birds landing on soft grass, Mackey’s innovations shine through in the startling development. Twice, sweeping glissandos invoke the romantic era, but not for long. Brusque arabesques of the pizzicatos inject spice, and nostalgia fades away like a sigh. Both the Borromeo and Brentano quartets play these works skillfully, and in Gaggle and Flock they play together with violist Hsin-Yun Huang, effectively making it a nonet. Some bars remind me of the sly densities of Silvestre Revueltas’ quartets, but Mackey drives his own wagon through the musical landscape. So jump on for a wild ride.
— Peter Bates