In 2017, the Kronos Quartet recorded an album of music by composer Henryk Górecki. Jeffrey Zeigler played the cello as part of the quartet, lending a deep somber tone to the mournful compositions. I mention Górecki because the work on Zeigler’s new project, Slow Beethoven, has striking similarities to the common aural themes found in the late Polish composer’s pieces. Slow Beethoven focuses on the first movement from Beethoven’s Opus 131, Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo. The piece, usually running at around eight minutes, has been pulled into an epic 45-minute piece so that each moment of Beethoven’s original work can be savored and wrung out for its emotional capacity.
Zeigler works with a quartet that includes Lara St. John and Miranda Cuckson on violin and Milan Milisavljevic on viola. Zeigler, the Music Director for the National Sawdust Ensemble, leads the quartet at National Sawdust’s Brooklyn location. What is so innovative about the project is that while Zeigler and company were playing the piece, the audio was piped into the TANK Center for Sonic Arts in Colorado. The musicians’ playing took on resonance and depth due to TANK’s venue – an empty, cavernous water tank in the deserts of Colorado. When the musicians move slowly and solemnly through the music, the ambience of the tank adds a sorrowful accent (as well as a lushness) to the sound as it reverberates.
Though it may feel daunting to approach a project like Slow Beethoven because it’s one long track that runs about 45 minutes long, the experience does not feel slow or lagging, despite the premise of the work: instead of feeling sluggish, the changing of the tempo makes the work feel more poignant, far more melancholy. The measured way in which the track progresses – there are few peaks and valleys, and we don’t hear a crescendo or a rousing until we’re almost at the end of the piece – means the emotion is sustained and regulated, always in control. It’s at once hypnotic and expressive, keeping the audience in a state of perpetual pathos. The deliberate pace also allows Beethoven’s original composition to take on new shades of blue as the quartet finds space at a slower speed to let the chords in the piece travel through space.
If there is a criticism to be had for this record is that the quartet only tackles one part of the whole piece – given how startlingly good Slow Beethoven is, one hopes that this could be an ongoing series. Given the reputation, ubiquity, and popularity of the music, trying to do something new or novel is a formidable challenge. This recording is unique because it finds a new timber to the sadness by allowing the music to stand independently. By stretching the piece, the recording exposes the music’s ‘bones’ and structure, highlighting Beethoven’s composition’s genius. Often when a classical work is slowed down, it collapses, but the arrangement on Slow Beethoven recasts the piece as something wholly new, recasting it as a contemporary classical dirge.