Bach's austerely beautiful Art of Fugue has long fascinated musicians who have a taste for the modern and esoteric. The piece, left incomplete at the composer's death, reduced complex counterpoint to its bare essentials – so much that the composer didn't even indicate the instrument (or instruments) for which it was composed.
In fact, most scholars agree that Bach probably intended the piece for the harpsichord, but a few string quartets have made their case for the work too. The New York-based Mivos Quartet recently brought the Contrapunctus XIX from The Art of Fugue to the WQXR Café as part of the station's month-long Bachstock festival. In an arrangement by Patrick Higgins, it dramatically calls attention to Bach's advanced sense of time and musical architecture.
Formed in 2008 at the Manhattan School of Music, the Mivos Quartet has put much of its focus and resources into contemporary string quartet repertoire. But early-vintage works also turn up on their programs.
"Maybe it seems random," says violist Victor Lowrie, "but when there's a program of new music, there's often much older music too – skipping the Classical and Romantic periods." Lowrie adds that, when compared to an exacting living composer, there's a great freedom when it comes to interpreting early music.
Like the famous Arditti Quartet before them, Mivos's members are especially drawn to some of the knottier, more abstruse corners of the contemporary repertoire. Their touring calendar presents a who's-who of avant-garde presenters – from Darmstadt to Roulette and seemingly every modern art museum in between. (The quartet appears at Columbia University's Miller Theater on Dec. 9.) And their programs span established names like Kurtag and Ligeti to relative up-and-comers including Kate Soper and Missy Mazzoli.
But the Mivos musicians say they're hardly dogmatic about styles or genres. Cellist Mariel Roberts recalled a recent, eye-opening tour in Brazil, where she encountered idioms far removed from American or European traditions (more samba than serialism). It made for an amusing clash of cultures: "On the last night we were there, one composer was like, 'I don't understand why you guys have all of this weird music with no rhythm. In Brazil that's not something you do. Why would you take the soul out of music?'
"I was like 'well, I never thought about it like that.'"
Listen to the full concert above, which also features the fourth movement from Taylor Brook's quartet, El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan (also below), plus commentary from cellist Mariel Roberts and violist Victor Lowrie.
Video: Kim Nowacki; Sound: Edward Haber; Production and Text: Brian Wise