Joan Magrané – Madrigal

by 5:4

Even as i start to write this opening sentence i feel uncertain about exactly where it’s going to lead. This is, i suppose, a provisional response to the latest release on the Neu label, Madrigal, featuring music by Catalan composer Joan Magrané. i’ve previously encountered Magrané’s work on just one occasion, at HCMF 2021, where i found his ensemble piece Faula to be “like an extensively decorated line, buried deep beneath all the filigree and spiralling tendrils”. That’s entirely in keeping with my experience of this new album, which features all three of Magrané’s string quartets, performed by Quatuor Diotima.

In saying this response is provisional, what i really mean by that is that Magrané’s music is perpetually elusive, always giving the impression of lyricism – like Faula, with some form of song at its centre – while keeping it sufficiently out of reach that it starts to seem illusory. As such, what this doesn’t seem to be is some form of refraction, where a tangible lyrical core is subject to processes that distort and transform it to a point where it no longer readily coheres. More tantalisingly, Magrané’s music suggests that it’s the strands of filigree that, subject to some unfathomable guiding hand, seem to spontaneously form into the impression of something tangible, a kind of imagined coherence, almost a sonic pareidolia.

In the case of Madrigal (String Quartet No. 1), composed in 2012 and revised in 2019, we’re in a world of halting, parallel strands (feasibly all part of a single entity) that search and sigh, until a powerful moment barely 80 seconds in, where the quartet briefly makes the dislocated form of a distinct melodic kernel. It’s gone again, instantly, but the memory of that momentary glimpse of unity and coherence hangs over the disparate confusion in what follows. Whether or not the ephemeral, transient, vaporous and occasionally flamboyant sounds and shapes that make up most of Madrigal‘s music are the product of an internal struggle (to cohere) or, as i’ve suggested, the actuality of fleeting material that we externally struggle to impose order onto, is an uncertainty that makes the piece compelling throughout. i don’t actually believe its lyrical core to be imaginary – the title directly suggests otherwise – but i find its slippery nature very effectively keeps me on my toes about what i’m actually hearing (or think i’m hearing). Certainly, there’s no sense of accumulating surety or clarity; the work’s closing minutes are, if anything, the most elusive of all, apart from – at an equivalent point to that kernel at the start – an equally momentary glimpse of something possibly chordal. The only thing unequivocal about Madrigal, it seems, is its ambiguity.

At the heart of this ambiguity is the question of to what extent the music is, at it appears to be, transparent, or actually manifesting a subtle form of opacity. It’s a question that’s also relevant to Magrané’s String Quartet No. 2, Alguns cants òrfics (“some Orphic songs”), which dates from 2013. Again the title referencing song, again the material eluding our efforts to resolve it into something definite. In contrast to Madrigal, the piece opens on a clear, single note, from which momentary expansions take place, offering further glimpses of something real or imagined. Where the first quartet’s elusivity was fragile, in Alguns cants òrfics it’s muscular and weighty. Upward glissandi seem to be forming something – again as part of a single, multistranded lyrical voice – whereupon the quartet erupts in a display of not merely muscle but also quicksilver speed. Yet its nature is not so different: the rapidity and heft are the distraction – the ‘noise’, in a sense – within which the ‘signal’ can occasionally be made out (or imagined?). A brief, glistening, dislocated phrase three minutes in echoes the same in Madrigal, later expanding into emphatic overlapping lines, perceptually caught between being separate or fused, though the combined effect of them is unity. This is the piece at its most potentially certain, whereupon Magrané hushes everything, the speed moving to the fringes as the music ends up in a place of borderline nothingness. Tiny traces of something extant materialise and grow, before the quartet falls back, via gossamer, to such inaudibility it’s almost impossible to tell when the piece ends.

Magrané’s third quartet, ERA, was composed in 2018, and at nearly 17 minutes is the longest of the three. In many respects it’s also the most elusive, which perhaps explains why Neu have positioned it second on the album, in between Madrigal and Alguns cants òrfics. Initially there’s the prospect of something palpable, choppy rhythms in the midst of sighs settling into different metric grooves, though constantly slipping back out of them. Yet the music ends up, playfully, in the stratosphere, where it’s all the more challenging to determine whether we’re hearing fragments of an idea or just the sound of arbitrarily moving tendrils. The music reduces to almost nothing, and while as it continues there’s the same push-pull of possible clarity, Magrané extends the level of evanescence beyond what we hear in the other two quartets. Indeed, around six minutes in it’s hard to know whether the music is doing anything remotely active at all, and before a minute more has passed it recedes yet further to the very cusp of evaporation. It can be frustrating at times – of the three, ERA is arguably the one where it’s hardest to hear anything meaningfully cohere (despite also demonstrating the most obvious instrumental unity) – though the work’s whole demeanour is entirely in keeping with this trio of pieces that all position themselves in the outer reaches of corporeality. In any case, positioned here, as effectively the middle part of a trilogy (these three string quartets work superbly well heard in this way), it forms an interesting contrasting episode between the marginally more tangible first and second quartets.

This is a really wonderful album, utterly beguiling, all the more so due to its insistence on sitting just beyond, very occasionally at, a liminal point of resolution. It’s like hearing half-remembered memories of musical ideas being traced in the air with smoke. As a consequence, each time i’ve listened it’s seemed different from before, with new possibilities emerging and taking shape. i’m still not sure which of them are purely the product of my mind. Quatuor Diotima’s rendition of this challenging music is outstanding, constantly sounding as if the notes are at a similar liminal point of control, vanishing as soon as bow touches string.

Released by Neu Records in May, Madrigal is available in physical and digital editions. The CD is once again housed in a DVD-sized case with an accompanying booklet (and also comes with a download code), while the digital version comes in the label’s usual array of lossless formats, including high-res and 5.1 surround options. As is often the case with Neu releases, PDF scores of two of the three quartets are also available via the label’s website.

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Mark Callan

I’m so pleased to have you comment on this release! I came upon it by chance and have played it frequently over the past month or two. It is absolutely spell-binding and, as you suggest, never the same twice. Thoroughly recommended!

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