The Five Elements
Concerto for String Quartet
The title “The Five Elements” is taken from the idea of the basic elements thought by ancient civilizations to comprise the universe – Earth, Water, Air and Fire. Classical Greek, Ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Hindu and Buddhist traditions all share the basic concept that our world is made of four basic substances, and a number of them also include a fifth element – Ether. (In the Greek tradition, Aristotle is said to have added Ether as the “heavenly” fifth element, existing beyond the reach of the other four “earthly” and “corruptible” substances.)
The work emerges from the concerto tradition (echoing the Baroque Concerto Grosso), in which a soloist or solo group (the quartet) is dramatically juxtaposed against the larger forces of the orchestra (the strings). It is based on the concept of the quartet instruments loosely exhibiting characteristics of the elements – the grounded, deep earthiness of the cello, the flowing lyricism of the viola and the dual nature of the violin: embodying both high, remote, lyrical melodies and volatile “pyrotechnics”. All the while, the orchestra often seems to hover around the quartet, an atmospheric “halo” in which the other instruments exist.
The drama essentially progresses from earth to fire – from the cello’s first deep, heavy utterances, through lyrical, quiet, sometimes timeless evocations of water and air, to the volatile, violent full-fledged conflagration that erupts out of them. The music is alternately rooted, flowing, spacious and violent.
The Five Elements was composed for, and premiered by, the string quartet ETHEL.