Homer, James Joyce and Kafka, these are the three authors Peter Eötvös has chosen for his Sirens Cycle, composed 2016. It is a string quartet with an added soprano coloratura voice, just as Schönberg did in his Second Quartet, Berg in the vocal version of his Lyrische Suite, or Wellesz in his Sonnets for Elisabeth Barrett-Browning.
The composer illustrates three very different literary versions of the mythological Ulysses meeting the sirens, each entrusted to the singer in the respective languages they were written in : Greek, English, German. The first and longest part, Joyce, has seven movements in which Eötvös freely transcribes Joyce’s "interior monologue". On the other hand, Homer’s Odyssey and Kafka’s Silence of the Sirens uses the exact original text, even though Homer is assigned a Lied form, Kafka a kind of recitative. “Each language, by its rhythms and own consonants, its accents and its inner architecture, implies a very peculiar musical character”, says Eötvös.
With regards to his first quartet, Korrespondenz composed in 1992, it is a kind of “mini-opera” without singers or singing. Its starting point was an exchange of letters between Mozart and his father Leopold in 1778, when the 22-year-old composer was unhappily living in Paris. In the quartet’s three “scenes” the viola represents Wolfgang and the cello Leopold, both with music that mimics the inflexions of what they write in their letters, while the two violins attempt to mediate between them. Eötvös assigns each vowel of the text to an interval, diphthongs become glissandi, while the consonants are expressed by different ways of playing; for instance, ‘r’ is always a trill or a tremolo. This technique would appear to place severe restrictions on the composer, but Eötvös feels that the more he has to compose within limitations, the wider opens the store of infinite possibilities. The work is divided into three scenes: Leopold trying to dissuade his son from pursuing his passion for the soprano Aloysia Weber; Wolfgang complaining that the Parisians are indifferent to his music; and Wolfgang tells his father of his mother’s death in Paris. The score contains the complete text but the listener does not know it, yet the string instruments communicate in a startlingly human fashion. Eötvös’s music “reads between the lines”, so to say. A fascinating composer, two of his fascinating works, both played with passion by the Calder Quartet, joined by Audrey Luna for the Sirens. © SM/Qobuz