The Attacca Quartet Storms Columbia

A High Hoedown with Adams, Wiancko, and Gabriella Smith

By: - Apr 08, 2021

The Attacca Quartet Pops Up at Columbia

John Adams  Selections from Adam’s Book of Alleged Dances (1994)
Paul Wiancko  Benkei's Standing Death (2020)
Gabriella Smith Carrot Revolution (2015)

The Attacca Quartet won its first Grammy in 2019 for Caroline Shaw’s Orange. They favor music of living composers, as does Melissa Smey, Executive Director of the Arts Initiative and Miller Theatre and the new Lenfest Center for the Arts on the north campus. What was Mozart doing on your birthday? Decomposing. 

The Attacca has made John Adams’ Alleged Dances a signature performance piece. It recalls Aaron Copland’s Rodeo and uses the stringed instruments in imaginative ways.  Attacca grasps the possibilities and goes at the music full tilt.

Adams has said the title arose because the music did not come from any known dance steps.

The quartet was originally commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. Paul Taylor took up the challenge of making the ten section piece actually dance. Yet, even before Taylor, it’s hard to imagine an audience sitting still as the folk tunes beat around them.

The music is in clusters and pairs. Sweet melodies give way to a thump. The sounds are as entertaining as the titles of the sections the Attacca performed: Toot Nipples, Alligator Escalator and Pavane: She’s So Fine.

The music feels like a hoedown. Slow melodies are articulated over plunks. Hip-slapping, foot-tapping, heel clicking sounds erupt on the strings and also in the percussive wooden bodies of the string instruments. Adams, the hayseed? 

Paul Wiancko’s Benkei’s Standing Death was commissioned by Attacca.

Benkei is based on a Japanese folk tale about a warrior monk, Benkei. He  duels with people. Victorious, he takes their swords. Amazing textures and the tones of poetry abound in the work. The Attacca expresses fully the kinetic energy and joy.  

Gabriella Smith wrote her The Carrot Revolution based on positioning of art and industrial objects in Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation art collection. Paul Cezanne is prominently featured in the collection. Smith was inspired by this Cezanne misquote: “The day will come when a single, freshly observed carrot will start a revolution."

Her piece is about the freshness of seeing and hearing when objects, notes and phrases are placed in unfamiliar orders.  We come to auditory attention in The Carrot Revolution. Smith mixes styles.  The cello can be a drum.  Rock music, choirs and hoedown fiddlers are blended.

Smith has written: “The piece is a patchwork of my wildly contrasting influences and full of weird, unexpected juxtapositions and intersecting planes of sound, inspired by the way Barnes’ ensembles show old work.”

The pop up concert was a rollicking success.  It is available here.