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The Week's Can't-Miss Performance 

Emergency String Quartet revolutionizes modern chamber music

Wednesday, Dec 12 2001
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In the contemporary world of improvisation, string players rule. Avant-garde trailblazers like bassist Dominic Duval, cellist Tomas Ulrich, violinist Mat Maneri, guitarist Joe Morris, and kotoist Miya Masaoka have displaced the horn players and pianists who used to run the show, inspiring a generation of string slingers to revolutionize chamber music for the new millennium.

Cellist Bob Marsh's Emergency String Quartet is one such combo. The local improv group -- which also includes bassist Damon Smith, violinist Jeff Hobbs, and violinist Kevin Van Yserloo -- plays what it calls "compositions that haven't been written yet." In other words, the quartet does not rely on prewritten scores or preconceived song structures to organize its sounds. Instead, the music comes alive in the moment via the constant give-and-take of the players.

On its debut CD Hill Music, the foursome collectively scrapes and saws its various strings into a dramatic, agitated concoction. At times, the group's aggressive rhythmic motifs collide like bumper cars; in other instances, the quartet's smoother bowed melodies -- ranging from the extreme rumble of the bass and cello to the high-end cries of the violins -- interweave like a multitextured quilt. Dispensing with traditional harmonic development, ESQ uses lots of timbral manipulation, rhythmic, minimalist repetition, and percussive techniques (e.g., beating the strings with the bow) to drive the music forward in fits and starts.

Though ESQ's players are cutting-edge in their approach to their compositions, their playing doesn't always hold together. (Perhaps this disjointedness can be explained by the fact that the four have only been a unit for 18 months.) Still, in the 21st-century improv world, strings are king; given time, ESQ may wear the crown.

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Sam Prestianni

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