Panels for String Quartet

Panels was composed in May 2015 to commemorate the installation of Spencer Finch’s painting Back to Kansas in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado. The title refers to the same-sized color panels that make up Finch’s painting, here reflected in musical panels – relatively monochromatic sections that have the same duration. The piece is in three sections, each with seven panels. In order to keep the durations similar, the metronome markings should be followed fairly closely, but performers shouldn’t be pedantic about it – it’s okay if one panel is a few seconds longer than another.Back To Kansas

The elements of Finch’s painting are derived from the movie, The Wizard of Oz. The string quartet, however, is based more on Finch’s painting than on the movie: There is one overt reference to the movie’s music, and there are several movie situations that I had in my mind when composing, but like Rachmaninoff’s Etudes Tableaux, knowledge of these situations is not necessary for understanding and enjoying the piece.

I composed my first string quartet, In Memoriam S.J., nearly 25 years ago, and while it’s musically solid, I’ve always regretted that it was laid out so unidiomatically, and with so little exploitation of string instruments’ amazing coloristic abilities. In this light, Panels can be heard as a series of texture studies that will come in handy when I finally get around to a second string quartet. It was very gratifying that the performers had to make only a few adjustments during the rehearsal process.panels excerpt

Panels in the second and third sections are variants of those in the first section. In each section, the panels grow darker, evoking Finch’s idea of watching the color disappear from the painting as the light fades. The panels in each section are shorter than those in the preceding section by 30 percent, mirroring the 10:7 screen aspect ratio from the movie The Wizard of Oz, which governs the proportions of Finch’s painting. Translated into time, this gives Panels the structure of an inverted pyramid, with the third section about half the length of the first. 

The first seven panels last approximately 30 seconds each; the second seven, approximately 21 seconds each; and the final seven, approximately 15 seconds each. The entire piece lasts about nine minutes. 

As in the painting, the spaces between each of the panels should also have approximately the same duration, but performers should feel free to adjust them to fit the musical character. 

Panels was premiered – wonderfully – by the Veronika String Quartet on July 10, 2015. I am grateful to the Green Box Arts Festival and the Bee Vradenburg Foundation for commissioning this piece.

“Artistic experiments are experiments that failed; if they succeed, you don’t realize that they were experiments.” (Author unknown, but the phrase has stuck with me since high school.) I’ve never composed a more formally experimental piece than Panels, and until late in the process, I was certain I’d have to append a coda in order to round things off. To my slight amazement, the original scheme worked, once all the pieces were in place.

Here’s a link to a pretty good computer mock-up of the score. It’s the original score, without any of the rehearsal-period adjustments, but all but one of the adjustments have minimal effect on the overall sound.