Disorder (II, I)

ensemble string quartet
duration ~9:59
listen 12/02/2006 performance (on bandcamp);
03/25/2010 performance (on bandcamp)
score PDF, 343KB
performance history 12/02/2006 by ASM at Issue Project Room (The Climax Of The Octopus);
03/25/2010 by ASM at Issue Project Room (Democracy!)
date completed 02/05/2010


The full title is “Disorder (II, I) (296.89, 296.51)”, but ... the codes were removed to make the title less obvious.

This started as the first piece I wrote for string quartet (then called “frenzy”) in 1993; it was part of a class exercise wherein the Mendelssohn string quartet (then in residence at the University of Delaware) would read through our pieces and give feedback. This left a big impression on me, as the violist made a point of complaining about her part being “boring.” Beside manner notwithstanding, it made me realize the importance of individual parts being musical in their own right.

I revised the piece in 1995, to address the complaint about the viola part. But it didn’t “fix” the piece as a whole. It played like a quilt: sections stitched together in an attempt to sound intentional. I revised it again in 2000, addressing the ending (this would become the ending of the first movement).

In this form, the piece was played at a Punk-not-Rock salon in Arlington VA. Still called “frenzy,” it gained momentum as it progressed, but the first half was emotionless and distant. I knew then that the problem was that I had no idea what the piece was about or what I was trying to capture.

Living in Brooklyn in 2005, I read an article in The Atlantic (“Lincoln’s Great Depression” by Joshua Wolf Shenk) that discussed Lincoln’s struggle with what was probably bipolarity and how it intersected with his faith. In reading about Lincoln’s life and personality, I tried to imagine comprehending the weight of the Civil War from the viewpoint of that condition. It occurred to me that the balance of light and dark in this quartet was really mania and depression. And so I started researching the different diagnoses of bipolarity in the (then) DSM IV. As I read, I decided that the beginning of the piece made no sense with the rest – I needed to write the part of the piece that came before what I already had. I needed to write the “first” movement. (This is a challenge that I am endlessly fascinated with.)

Within a year, I had something that made sense musically. But it made no sense organizationally, so I called it “Disorder” and put the movement I wrote second first, and the movement I wrote first second (hence “II, I”). Because the first movement was written to justify the second, there is no break between the movements.

I was fortunate enough to fall in with ASM around that time, and my first show with them, in 2006, included that piece. It was performed again in 2010, after I removed some of the over-notation of bowings, adjusted dynamics, and revised the pedal/ostinato pizzicato section (whose rhythm was previously needlessly complex).

This is when I started thinking about changing the way I write, that perhaps it’s OK to be more straightforward, to use a standard chord progression if it sounds good, etc. This was also the last piece I wrote in NYC.

It’s worth noting that ASM is a non-profit, not a performing ensemble, so the performers of this piece were different each time. The 2006 (Octopus) performance was by Hubert Chen, Jean Cook, Jessica Pavone, and Pat Muchmore; the 2010 (Democracy) performance was by Tom Swafford, Megan Atchley, Philippa Thompson, Pat Muchmore.

And lest you think that this all takes itself too seriously, here are the program notes from those performances:

Disorder (II, I) is the first two movements (played with no pause between them) of a four-movement piece for string quartet. These explore the psychology of creativity and mental illness not as divergence but rather as integration. Wow, is that pretentious. Would you believe the basis is Abraham Lincoln? Uh, how about Sylvia Plath? That’s not making it sound any better... Would you believe that it was written from the inside out? OK, forget all that. This piece is really about monkeys with bicycles.

- ASM program notes, 12/02/2006

This was written about DSM IV conditions shared by some people you know and President Abraham Lincoln. The intention was to explore the sound in his head in quiet moments: how one handles pressure, fear, faith, hope and sorrow. Structurally, it’s backwards: the first half is the second movement, which was written after the second half, which is the first movement. Get it? Disorders! [groan]

- ASM program notes, 03/25/2010

Technically, this is a work-in-progress. But as this much of the piece has taken over two decades, it’s hard to say when or even if it will be completed. Movement III is in sketch form, and movement IV is as yet unknown (as is their order).