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Ryan, Jeffrey

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Ryan, Jeffrey (1962-)

Quantum Mechanics (1996)

The string quartet Quantum Mechanics is in three movements inspired by images and ideas found in atomic energy. In particular, the essential image of the elliptical orbits of electrons around the nucleus is represented at many levels of the music. The outer movements are energetic and extroverted, reflecting their titles. Both fission (the act of splitting the atom) and fusion (the act of recombining the atom) result in a massive release of energy. In the first movement, after a slow introduction during which the instruments converge to an emphatic unison, the musical motives orbit around the central pitch D, while musical threads swirl away from this central pitch in bursts of energy. Elliptical structures are found on the large scale, in the movement’s five-part form, and on the small scale, in the irregular 7/8 metre. In the final gesture of the movement, the last remnants swirl upwards into nothingness.

Absolute zero is the temperature at which all atomic motion ceases. The second movement interprets this utter stillness as a pause for meditation. The instruments play with metal practice mutes, creating a distant, ethereal sound. In the course of the movement, the gentle building of dense harmonies through simple step-wise motion in thirds is contrasted with free solo passages in which each instrument, in turn, expends its final vestige of energy and finds its own stillness.

The third movement, as befits its title, is a fusion of musical ideas from the first two movements, including the use of glissandi and the emphasis on thirds and tritones. Though it may appear less stable harmonically than the previous movements, ultimately it resolves the harmonic implications of the whole work. On the structural level, the image of the ellipse again appears, but this time it is represented by the arrangement of phrase lengths into a pattern of 3+4+3+2 measures, which is repeated throughout the entire movement. This use of short phrase units creates more rapid, and often unexpected, changes in the music, though these units are sometimes combined into larger phrases of varying lengths, so that the pattern is sensed but not always apparent to the ear. As in the first movement, the steady pulse of the music is interrupted by sudden bursts of energy, and the work comes to a close with a final unison convergence and a recollection of the opening movement.

Quantum Mechanics is dedicated with appreciation and admiration to my former teacher Donald Erb, whose life and work demonstrate what it means to be a great composer, a great teacher, and a great person.
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Jeffrey Ryan


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