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Sketches of Twisted River

Sketches of Twisted River for string quartet. 
Completed 2012; approximately 6 mins in duration.
Premiered on 27 August 2012 at the Ellington Jazz Club, Perth, Western Australia by the Sartory String Quartet through the assistance of the Australia Council for the Arts and the Western Australian Department for Culture and the Arts.

'Sketches of Twisted River' is performed in this studio recording by the Sartory String Quartet: Paul Wright - 1st violin, Pascale Whiting - 2nd violin, Katherine Corecig - viola and Sophie Curtis - cello. Recorded, mixed and mastered by Lee Buddle at Crank Recording. This recording was made possible through the assistance of the Western Australian Department for Culture and the Arts and the Australia Council for the Arts.

 The Sartory String Quartet. Photo by Nik Babic

Program note

'Sketches of Twisted River' for string quartet was written as a response to John Irving's novel Last Night in Twisted River - or more specifically, to the opening section of the novel entitled 'Coos County, New Hampshire, 1954'. As the name suggests, this programmatic work for quartet is comprised of musical 'sketches' inspired by some of Irving's imagery and characters in the rough, fictional logging town of Twisted River.

The piece opens with the accidental plunge of a young logger into the river: 'For a frozen moment, his feet had stopped moving on the floating logs.' He goes down into 'the frigid water, which was thick, almost soupy, with sloughed-off slabs of bark'. The music in this opening of the piece was written to both convey panic and a distortion of one's sense of time: when I first read the opening scene of the novel, I was struck by how the author was able to at once give painful detail but also express the urgency of the action. The moving notes in the violins and viola are written to spell out desperate increments of time and the shifting hues of the water, which Irving writes 'from one moment to the next, turned from greenish brown to bluish black'. The cello figure introduces a leitmotif or recurring theme and enters like a cry out for the young logger.

A second section introduces the character of Dominic, who 'had the look of a man long resigned to his fate. He was so unflinchingly calm that he radiated a kind of acceptance that could easily be mistaken for pessimism'. The music here has a quiet tenacity and an ever-steady pulse. The melody, which is shared by the violins, has tenuto up-beat quavers that emulate Dominic's limp and a slow moving melodic contour which conveys his reticence. Following this, there is a recall of the opening theme and accompanying texture in a slightly different guise, as in the remembrance of the death of Dominic's wife from drowning some years previously - somewhat similarly to how the young logger had passed away.

A bluesy, gritty section of music is a sketch of the character Ketchum: a fiercely independent, passionately outspoken, heavy drinking, truly loyal friend of Dominic. Irving writes that 'everything about Ketchum was hardened and sharp-edged, like a whittled-down stick.' The players are instructed to increasingly use slides up or down to notes. The leitmotif is heard in the first violin part, albeit somewhat enveloped by the polyphonic texture.

The final portion of the work is intended to express the bleakness of the town of Twisted River, and Dominic's distancing of himself from the town - both figuratively and, soon, literally. The notes held by the viola and 2nd violin are to be played close to the bridge of the instrument to give them an eerie, disarming quality, much as the muted light of the town, the sawdust blowing through the air and even the blinking broken neon lights outside the 'shabby hostelry bars' give Twisted River such a sense of disquiet. A fragment of the leitmotif is heard, in an abstract and distorted way, between the cello and 1st violin. A line from '(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window', mentioned in the novel, is heard as a kind of grotesque juxtaposition of the feeling of unease and the cheapness of the town's entertainment. The piece ends with an ominous dissonance, as does the first section of the novel.