Commissioned by the LA Philharmonic, with generous support from Helen and Justus Schlicting, and the Calder Quartet
Premiered on December 7, 2017 at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Can’t and Won’t began its life as a song cycle based on texts by one of my favorite authors, Lydia Davis. The idea for the project would be that I would set a few of her very short pieces into songs that keep using a recurring melody. In between these short songs, I would compose a long and intense setting of Davis’s story called—appropriately—“Story”, broken into three parts. But try as I might, I could never quite make the piece I wanted to out of her words. It didn’t help that so many composers I admire had already made fantastic settings of her work. Perhaps her work is just complete in it of itself. But rather than throw aside these musical ideas, I decided to make a new string quartet out of them, a series of little “songs without words” interspersed with one long violent and dramatic movement.
The quartet begins with the faintest of sounds: the violinist gently tapping on their fingerboard to elicit a quiet ringing of open strings. Little by little, the quartet bow their strings, revealing a delicate texture of swirling harmonics. A long, stretched-out melody emerges from the cello. Suddenly, as the song begins to form, it is cut off sharply, and a violent round of D’s is fired like bullets from the entire quartet. These two elements form the main drama, the “can’t” and “won’t”, of the form. As the work progresses, the songs without words move higher and higher, forming into a proper melody, while the violent and rhythmic music descends to the lowest range of the instruments.
As I was writing this quartet, it became clear that something else was occupying my subconscious. A lot of this past year has been about trying to find some sense of repose in a deeply chaotic time, amid constant and often terrifying distractions. Can’t and Won’t seems to both acknowledge this sense of disturbance, yet also optimistically point towards the hope for a place of composure, even if it’s a temporary one.