Midnight Refrains
for String Quartet
by Lawrence Kramer

 

Lawrence Kramer (b. 1946) grew up in Philadelphia and New York and was educated at the University of Pennsylvania and at Yale. A prizewinning composer whose works have been performed throughout the United States and Europe, he holds the position of Distinguished Professor of English and Music at Fordham University.

Kramer studied composition privately when, while still in college, he spent three years as the producer of programs featuring contemporary classical music on public radio. He began writing music during the decade of the 1980s but as a composer he is a true late bloomer: most of the work in his catalog has been composed since 2006, when he turned sixty. His turn to composition came after more than fifteen years of intensive work in musicology for which he is independently renowned. (His 2016 book The Thought of Music won the ASCAP Foundation Virgil Thomson Award for Outstanding Music Criticism.)

Kramer’s vocal and chamber music has won competitions sponsored by Composers Concordance, Hartford Opera Theater, Ensemble for These Times, The Arc Festival, and The Composer’s Voice. Especially prominent in his catalog are works for voice (seventeen song cycles and numerous standalone songs) and for strings (eight string quartets, a string sextet, two string trios, and music for solo strings with and without piano).

Performances in recent years include, among numerous others, Nietzsche Fragments for baritone, violin, and piano (New York, 2015); Erat Hora (song cycle for soprano, baritone, and piano; New York, 2016); “Trefoil” for String Trio (Stockholm, 2017); “Wingspan” for String Sextet (New York, 2017); Three Nocturnes for Viola and Piano (Cambridge, UK, 2018); Part Songs for mixed chorus (New York, 2019); String Quartet no. 8, Reflections and Memories (Montecassiano, Italy, 2020, via Zoom); a response to the Covid19 pandemic, “Outcry and Elegy” for Unaccompanied Violin (New York, 2021, via Zoom); and Ecospheres for Baritone and Chamber Ensemble (New York, live, 2022).

Website: http://lkmusic.org
Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Kramer_(musicologist)

 

"Midnight Refrains" is a contemplative work "set" at the hour traditionally reserved for deep, somewhat melancholy thought. The title points to both a form and a feeling.

A refrain may simply be a melody, ususally a simple or catchy one, that returns several times in the course of a piece of music. In poetry, a refrain is a line or two, usually the first or the last, that returns in every stanza, sometimes with small variations. The key thing about these refrains is that their repetition changes their meaning. Similarity in sound becomes
the measure of difference in sense. For Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, in their book
A Thousand Plateaus, the refrain is an auditory gesture brings order to the free flow of events, which, however, can never be wholly be tamed. Music arises from the oscillation between flows and refrains.

The music of "Midnight Refrains" shares all these qualities. It is based on recurrent phrases, three of them to my ears although yours may hear more, that change in meaning each time they return. As they jostle each other and evolve, the refrains oscillate with the free flow of the music around them. True to its contemplative nature, the music seeks out a condition of concentration and simplification, a poise of mind amid the whirl of events. Two lines from T. S. Eliot's poem "Little Gidding"--they kept occurring to me as I was writing this piece--evoke the feeling sought for : "A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything)."

Duration 7:15.

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