Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol’s objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.
The opening work, the titular Dark Queen Mantra, was commissioned in part to commemorate Riley’s 80th birthday. The composition pairs Del Sol with guitarist (and Terry’s son) Gyan Riley, a notable contemporary classical musician in his own right. Opening movement “Vizcaino”, named after a hotel papa Riley once visited in Spain, fuses shifting rhythms with Spanish and Arabic melodic themes. The work is notably straightforward and accessible, the exotic elements featured in the guitar part sitting well within the string quartet’s texture. “Goya with Wings”, inspired in part by painter Francisco Goya, balances mournful drones with playful rhythms as ideas and motifs trade between guitar and the quartet. Final movement “Dark Queen Mantra” opens with a simple, songlike melody before descending into chaos with driving rhythms and distorted guitar chords.
Terry Riley’s prolific writing for string quartet and electric guitar beautifully unite throughout the three-movement work. While this may be his first time writing for this augmented ensemble, Dark Queen Mantra is by no means an experiment. It’s a straightforward work, undoubtedly inspired by his jazz background and affinity for reconciling rhythmic drive with a sense of musical stasis. The guitar’s Astor Piazzolla-meets-Joe Pass chord melody of “Goya with Wings” hits a bevy of emotional cues, while the syncopation throughout “Vizcaino” grooves without feeling heavy or overbearing. It’s a complete composition that reflects the rich possibilities of string quartet and electric guitar, as well as the skills of a master composer in his eighth decade.
By contrast, Stefano Scodanibbio’s Mas Lugares brings a more abstract sensibility to the album. A former colleague and friend of Riley’s (Scodanibbio passed away in 2012), the work is directly informed by the madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi, a composer representing a vital link between the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Del Sol was introduced to this work through Riley, and its inclusion on the album balances the recording’s aesthetic between propulsion and meditation. Mas Lugares is performed attacca, featuring direct transitions between movements as opposed to the typical brief pauses. The effect compliments the overall flow, feeling like one extended grand composition rather than a segmented collection of movements.
The opening “Allegro” is the most discordant of the set, with the violins, viola, and cello elbowing their way to the forefront, each arguing for prominence. The transition into “Io mi son giovinetta” relieves the tension with a subdued tempo and shimmering harmonics. “Largo” combines qualities from the prior movements as modern dissonance bleeds its way into Baroque-themed harmonic consonance. “Quell’augellin, che canta” and “Che se tu se’ ‘l cor mio” both augment Monteverdi’s compositions with contemporary techniques, reconciling the past with the modern. Representing a different side of modern sensibility, Mas Lugares reflects the ideals of the past in a respectfully updated fashion.
At 16 minutes in length, Terry Riley’s “The Wheel and the Mythic Birds Waltz” is undeniably the longest and most challenging track on the album. The work opens with a lethargic, jazz-influenced ballad setting of thick chords and wandering melodies. Moving into a faster tempo and steady grooves, the music becomes a study in syncopation, Riley himself noting that much of the material is based on a cycling of various raga rhythms. With its extended length and technical and musical challenges, “The Wheel and the Mythical Birds Waltz” demand commitment and unity from a string quartet, a challenge Del Sol meets with unfettered mastery.
While it champions Riley’s career through programming of newly commissioned and well-tested works, Dark Queen Mantra also represents a fine point in the Del Sol String Quartet’s career trajectory. Collaborating with living composers and unearthing neglect modern masterpieces represent part of their greater musical ambitions, and their newest release epitomizes a landmark goal for the ensemble. Whether or not the compositions on the album become standards in modern string quartet repertoire they undeniable reflect a unification of divergent elements — old and new, classical and popular — that elevate the format into admirable new heights.