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PERFORMING ARTS

Low End String Quartet (from left, Tom Clune, Jodi Beder, Jon Morris and Andrea Vercoe) didn't make the most of classical minimalism. Pee Wee Ellis, right, feted James Brown.
Low End String Quartet (from left, Tom Clune, Jodi Beder, Jon Morris and Andrea Vercoe) didn't make the most of classical minimalism. Pee Wee Ellis, right, feted James Brown. (By Lawrence Luk)
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-- Sarah Godfrey

Low End String Quartet

Composer Jonathan Matis is very upfront about his aims for the Low End String Quartet: He intends to rock. On his blog and during interviews, he talks about shaking up classical music mores and bending genres. Saturday night, the Hyattsville resident packed up his ambitions and amplifiers and headed for Velvet Lounge.

Word on U Street is that the tiny club, the size of a junior one-bedroom, is where you'd go hear a friend of a friend play post-punk electronic noise. So Matis has accomplished his goal of bringing classically trained musicians to an unusual venue. As a composer, he has work to do. The key to writing minimalist chamber music, as the Low End Quartet is best summed up stylistically, is convincing listeners that the reason you keep repeating the same four chords is not because those are the only four you know. Too often, the Low End failed to pass this basic test. The orchestration -- for Matis on electric guitar, plus amplified upright bass, violin and cello -- is mostly dull and meandering. (It was also way too loud.) And its a shame, because there were moments, in "Rondo" and "Shut Up and Listen," when Matis used looping and layers of sound to create music that was more complex and engaging.

It's worth remembering that minimalism, as a sonic movement, was conceived in California clubs and galleries, not concert halls. The composer John Adams, in his forthcoming memoir, confesses that the first piece he ever wrote for the Kronos Quartet "crashed and burned" 30 years ago in Santa Cruz. He then massively reworked the piece and came up with his classic chamber work, "Shaker Loops." All this to say, the Low End Quartet is charting venerable territory. Matis and his friends just have to remember that it's the music that breaks boundaries, not the musicians.

--Rebecca J. Ritzel


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