Scorpions & The Many Songs (String Quartet No. 3)

by Matthew James Briggs

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The story behind Scorpions & The Many Songs goes back to 2011 when I learned about a field of scientific study known as Soundscape Ecology. In this field scientists record vast amounts of audio and use these recordings to learn about ecosystems. For example, acoustic diversity can be used as a proxy for biodiversity. Recording audio over a period of years can reveal how biodiversity changes over time, how an ecosystem is affected by human land use, etc. Additionally one finds that the natural soundscapes themselves are beautiful, intrinsically valuable and sadly endangered by anthropic (human-generated) noise.

Intrigued, I found an online audio database hosted by the Global Sustainable Soundscapes Network (GSSN). Using a file I found there, I composed Blankets & Bioluminescence for Violin, Cello, Piano, Drumset and Recorded Soundscape. This work led to an invitation to participate in GSSN’s Sonoran Desert Workshop in Oracle, Arizona in July 2013. Scorpions & The Many Songs is the result of this experience.

The desert has a unique acoustic signature. It is open and unobstructed, allowing you to hear sounds at a great distance. It can be very quiet and still, but surprisingly alive and diverse. The desert is both beautiful and extreme.

Two recordings are used in Scorpions & The Many Songs. The first movement, Scorpions, begins with a nighttime recording, which sits in the sonic foreground. This soundscape was recorded in Oracle, AZ (coordinates 32.601278, -110.736383) at 10:30 PM on July 13, 2013. The string quartet accompanies this soundscape with delicate stillness. A long series of chords starts with brittle, cold harmonics at the top of the range and descends through the entire range of the string quartet. As we approach morning, the chords become more consonant and warm. Scorpions is about the heightened sense of listening and scanning for danger that we experience when out in nature in the middle of the night. At the end of this tension, we experience the relief and comfort of the sunrise as warm consonant chords are played over a morning chorus soundscape.

The morning chorus was recorded at the Bonita Grasslands acoustic listening site in the Chiricahua National Monument (coordinates 32.011472, -109.38625) on May 8, 2013 at 5:00 AM. It was recorded by an SM2 acoustic sensor as part of a study by the GSSN. I chose this particular morning chorus for its richness and diversity and because a white-winged dove can be heard. I find the presence of the white-winged dove’s distinctive call to be a personal keynote from the region; something I am not accustomed to hearing elsewhere.

The soundscape continues as the second movement, The Many Songs, begins. This movement uses a Native American song as a launching point. Barnaby Lewis, Tribal Historian and member of the Akimel O'odham tribe, came to the workshop to share with us songs of the Akimel O'odham. One of the songs was particularly inspiring. The translation was given as:

Who among you has seen!
Over at the foot of the sunrise, the bright ancient house stands.
Inside are many kinds of song.
I opened, and saw the many songs.

You will hear the melody played by pizzicato cello near the beginning of the movement. As if the bright ancient house has been opened, the many songs begin to spring forth until they take over the entire string quartet.

* Scorpion cover photo by Mark V. Lomolino

credits

released December 21, 2013

Mitchell Drury - Violin 1
Candice Chin - Violin 2
Stephen Creswell - Viola
Brad Hawkins - Cello
Recorded at Opus4 Studios Bothell, Washington October 6, 2013

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