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Composer Portraits: Alex Mincek

"My recent compositional thinking is often concerned with creating musical contexts in which diverse or even seemingly incompatible sound worlds coexist. I feel that by thoughtfully connecting, combining and alternating seemingly disparate states, I can create a sense of interconnectivity that reveals underlying qualities of coherence and unity." —Alex Mincek

The one constant is heat, usually generated by a fast pulse that is at once insisted upon and offset by bristling syncopations, metallic-electric. On other levels—concurring with, or activating, or ignoring the pulse—events will be careering as if on their own courses, some of them occasionally circling round in repetition. Generally, things are going at such a speed that one may not be sure quite what one just heard: this instrument or that, how the pattern fell across the whole spectrum between pure tones and unpitched noises.

In recent years, Alex Mincek has developed a music all his own born from jazz, New York minimalism, and European noise-art. The ingredients may seem incompatible, and may even sound so, as they stretch each other in a Mincek composition, but somehow they hold together, their frictions thoroughly positive. Ignition has happened. Explosion is just being held off.

Born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1975, Mincek moved to New York in 1995, initially to study saxophone at the Manhattan School, to which he returned to join the master’s course in composition led by Nils Vigeland. He completed his training here at Columbia, as a doctoral student of Tristan Murail and Fred Lerdahl. Almost since his arrival, he has been active in the city as a composer and performer, most notably with Wet Ink, of which he is a co-director. Works of his have also been performed across the United States and at festivals in France, Germany, and the Czech Republic.

Pendulum VI: Trigger (2010)

A pendulum deals in regularity and extremes, and so provides an image or metaphor Mincek has used for a slew of pieces for instrumental units over the last decade. Pendulum VI was commissioned by tonight’s musicians, who gave the first performance at Roulette in 2010.

Like others in the series, the composition has to do with fusing disparities, not least within the instrumentation. The start, for instance, is made of scraped sounds, the percussionists on guiros of different sizes and a ratchet while the pianists are operating on the strings of their instruments, whether with fingers or a credit card. In strict rhythm, the same itchy figures are in play across the ensemble, but in shifting combinations, to produce a riot of syncopations. From simple elements comes something quirky, perhaps a tad humorous.

Increasingly broken by pauses, this texture is abruptly dropped for something else, which seems to spring off from what went before. And so the piece judders on, from one kind of machinery to another, sometimes getting stuck in a groove, but always proceeding with so much dash and drama as to need no verbal exposition. A little over half way through comes an immense crescendo, after which the percussionists turn to tuned instruments: vibraphone and cow bells. As if recuperating, the piece is then ready to go on, and to arrive finally back where it started, nearly ten minutes before.

String Quartet No. 3 “lift – tilt – filter – split” (2010)

Mincek wrote the third—and still most recent—of his string quartets for the JACK Quartet, who performed it for the first time at St. Peter’s Church in Chelsea in 2010, and have kept it in their repertory. The Mivos Quartet have also given several notable performances, not least at Darmstadt and in the Far East.

There are many remarkable features of this piece, including its predominant condition of acute, accurate vitality, its negotiation between exact repetition and various degrees of shadowing or approximation, its consistent grip on the listener through eleven sections that play continuously, each maintaining a particular character that is likely to be defined in part by including what is disruptive, and its distinctive harmonic flavor—abraded, scorched—whether the chords (with intervals measured in quarter-tones and sometimes eighth-tones) are instantaneous, prolonged, or enchained in strange, abrupt progressions. To be sure, these are all features of Mincek’s work in general, and have already been encountered in Pendulum VI. The quartet, however, seems to catch them at a peak moment. It comes, also, to a conclusion that is not only logically satisfying but memorably haunting.

The composer has written the following note on the piece, which plays for just under twenty minutes:

“In String Quartet No. 3: “lift – tilt – filter – split” (2010), I use successions of variously dynamic textures to represent complex interactions as they relate to shape and movement. I like to think of these textures as networks of musical structures perceived most immediately as generalized composites, but which have multi-stable perceptual characteristics as well, allowing the listener to bounce back and forth from the recognition of the unique parts and the undifferentiated whole. One of the things I find most interesting about these textures is their ability to absorb repetitions within networks of difference. For example, many sections in the work are constructed so that the composite rhythm from one phrase to the next is nearly identical, as is the timbre, pitch and register content. However, the distribution of these parameters is in constant flux. The result is music that is both always the same and always different, depending on how the listener chooses to follow the material.”

“The title,” he has also noted, “is meant to suggest a number of ways one might act upon objects to experience them in different ways and perhaps learn more about them. It also articulates the overall formal process of the piece to some degree.”

Images of Duration (In homage to Ellsworth Kelly) (2015-16)

Mincek’s reference in this new work for Yarn/Wire is, as he has explained, to the sequence of images Ellsworth Kelly planned as a book in 1951: Line Form Color: “In Kelly’s work a succession of images proceeds from one to many lines, then grids, then primary color fields, then mixed color fields, and finally shapes embedded in color. My own work follows roughly the same strategy, applied to sound, in various reorderings, and emphasizes, like the Kelly, the futility of fully separating the experience of color from that of shape/gesture and how the order, or ‘form’ of these successions can intensify or dilute the perception of each.”

Beginning in a very different way from Mincek’s earlier work for these musicians, the first movement seems to be erecting grids of unevenly spaced staccato attacks, all the players percussionists. These vertical stripes are abruptly replaced by horizontal elements—intense solos, one might say—and a short entanglement of vertical and horizontal, of iteration and change, ensues.

The second movement switches to the tuned (colored) domain, with the percussionists on crotales, vibes, and marimba, joining one of the pianists on E as this chimes in several treble octaves—though with a discordant low A half-sharp plucked by the other pianist, whose instrument is tuned down a quarter tone. In what is again a short movement, the E is sustained as the two pianists slowly circle around it with other clear harmonies.

Rather longer, the third movement is an exciting and typically Mincekian play of the constant and the immediate, of virtual inactivity (the second percussionist on metal coil in the early stages) and frenzy (from the triangle and, not least, the second piano, with its charging clusters in incessant tumbling), noise and pitch. The drama of the movement brings in vibes, and later marimba and “waterphone” as the color changes.

Making up more than half the entire piece, the fourth movement begins with irregular rotations led by marimba and pianos. In this movement, the second pianist switches between normally tuned and detuned instruments, so that the all-important harmonies are sometimes degraded. The second half of the movement begins with rhythmic unisons across the ensemble and leads into a mysterious, more open space before elements are recalled towards the exuberant close.

The finale is very short, and again something else.

Yarn/Wire’s commission of Images of Duration (In homage to Ellsworth Kelly) has been made possible by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund.

Torrent (2015-16)

A torrent is, of course, a vigorous stream of fluid, owing its energy to gravity, in the case, say, of a waterfall, or to pressure, in the case of a volcanic eruption or a fire hose. Mincek’s music has its own sources of energy—rhythmic, harmonic, timbral—and they are in play here to make Torrent, eventually, a torrent. But the word also has a more modern meaning, in the domain of file-sharing, and perhaps Torrent is a torrent, too, in this sense, in combining all the available resources—the resources, that is, of this concert—to achieve a massive act of communication.

This is not, though, how things start, and yet the beginning of this fifteen-minute piece does lay out some of its premises. The second piano is still an instrument tuned down a quarter-tone; more surprisingly, all the string players have tuned their bottom strings down a sixth, to create a completely new quartet sound, fully exploited here in the opening chord. Quarter-tone—and, later, eighth-tone—tuning is also required from these musicians, as in the quartet they played.

When the music suddenly moves up a few gears, yet stays quiet, all the quartet players are in the very low register of their fourth strings, also in the strained sound-world that comes from playing up very close to the fingerboard. Typically, Mincek has his musicians overlapping with similar, but never quite the same, figures, while larger cycles of repetition begin.

Stop. Go back again. Do things very differently.

It seems the percussionists know what is coming. And then it comes. The torrent is energized by repeating string chords in divergent pulse rates and tunings and by chimes before it lets rip, the strings now in high registers, the pianists and percussionists projecting clangor and rhythmic impetus. Once again, repeating cycles are in operation within an overall arc of change.

The power accumulated earlier in the piece was immense, and its expression now is immense. Expression, however, means release. The artistry comes in maintaining tension, and wonder, through the inevitable.

Program Notes by Paul Griffiths