Igneous Etude for String Trio

The Serenade Trio decided that their program needed a piece that went completely against the grain of the usual style of the rest of their repertoire, so they asked me to devise something for them. The result was Igneous Etude; the word play of the title may be readily deciphered by the geologically erudite. Igneous is the adjective describing one of the three kinds of rock (the others being sedimentary and metamorphic). The piece, then is an etude in rock style (jazz-rock, to be precise) for the members of the orchestra who are least likely to have had such an experience.

Igneous Etude begins deceptively, lulling the audience into the feeling that a lovely but somewhat lugubrious lullaby-esque piece is under way (the very alert listener may spot the use of the blues scale here, foreshadowed though camouflaged). The fermata seems to indicate that further sleepy music is in store, when in fact seat belts and crash helmets are in order for both the players and the audience. Beginning with a unison loud and classically forbidden toe tap to set the breakneck tempo, the strings are off and running with a brash and heavily accented fortissimo. They are required to use every extended technique in the book – pizzicato, col legno, tapping the instrument, strumming the strings, left hand damping, and so on – as they create the raw power, pulse, and percussive pizzazz of a jazz-rock ensemble, albeit unamplified. After establishing the recurring rock ritornello, each player in turn gets to flaunt his or her rock chops in flashy, death-defying solos, with the ritornello supplying brief punctuation in between. A fourth solo follows the individual solos: it is a drum solo, played by the whole ensemble using an intricate overlapping rhythmic polyphony of percussive effects. What will they think of next?


What indeed: suddenly the cello takes over, scratching out a pianissimo sul ponticello groove. The viola, in a style not unlike the pensive introduction, comes in with what turns out to be the theme of a blues fugato section. The violin answers at the fifth four bars later as the viola moves to an accompanying figure. The very classical-sounding transition leads without warning to a rollicking recapitulation of the rock ritornello, culminating in a fiery flamboyant finish, leaving listeners breathless and bedazzled.