“Of Colors Most Fleeting” Volume Two (selected)

In 2010 Robert and Bruno Luse began the task of restoring the recordings of the Singapore Guitar Quartet, in collaboration with Lee Choon Boon, one of Robert’s students.

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“Of Colors Most Fleeting,” Vol. 2
Roots of a Composer

My earliest Florida memory stems from Dad’s promise that I could ride my tricycle, no matter how late we got home. Driving back from California where Dad had worked as an aircraft mechanic during the war, the trip took us a full week. Finally, Gulfport, Florida; home at last! I pedalled furiously up and down the sidewalk while Mom and Dad coaxed our long mothballed house back to life. It was 4am.

We shared our home at 5140 29th Ave. South with seven oak trees. My next memory, as fresh as though from yesterday, is of that particular oak next to which I was standing – the second one up the driveway – when Dad drove in with the newspaper. The headlines, the biggest I had ever seen proclaimed: JAPAN SURRENDERS. It was Aug. 16, 1945. I was five and a half years old.

A happy – sad memory concerns the trolley that plied between Gulfport and St. Pete. One day, that abiding conveyance simply disappeared from Beach Boulevard, Gulfport’s main thoroughfare. Only the tracks remained, entering Gulfport from the north as of old and sloping gently towards their waterfront destination, Gulfport Casino, beach and fishing pier.

Once graduated to a bike, I pedalled down to the beach most days after school. Far declined from her heyday as a gambler’s haven during Florida’s boom years back in the ‘20s, the Casino by my time was relegated to hosting ballroom dancing and nightly “Bingo” for Gulfport’s very plentiful elderly. Though I peeked in at the “old fogies” now and then, my world was the great out-of-doors; so, for the time being, the Grand Old Lady of Gulfport architecture and I remained aloof.

Sometime in the late 40’s, I had developed a terrible “crush” on my classmate Tee Tonkin. Around that time, we got our first telephone. Unbelievably one Friday night, Tee and her friend called me up and announced that “they loved me.” I was over the moon! Only trouble was the next Monday in school they seemed to have forgotten the incident entirely. All that excitement for nothing! Anyway, I still remember our first phone number. (How many numbers have I forgotten since the one and only one with just five digits, good old 3-5-8-5-5?). It was a “party line”, so eavesdropping was the general order of the day.

When I was very young, they called me “Robin.” Later it changed to “Bobby”. I secretly envied my classmate, Robert Harris, who was always called, just, uh, “Robert”. Anyway, by 1950, ten year old “Bobby” was bussing downtown every Saturday to the movies. How I wished the nice, quiet trolley would come back. Noisy busses just were not my thing. And there was this sign by the bus door, “Coloreds sit in the rear.” Why, I could never figure out. I mean, we all paid the same fare. My weekly allowance of a “quarter” (twenty-five cents) paid bus fare, my movie ticket and 5 cents worth of popcorn. In addition to the feature, the “Roxy”, “State” and “La Plaza” showed the weekly news, previews, “Flash Gordon” or “Buck Rogers” in serial form and a cartoon. Admission to the Roxy was nine cents, so when I went there, I had a penny left over for my piggybank!

In 1956, pop music changed. Virtually overnight, it was bye-bye to the “The Hit Parade,” Gisele Mackenzie and Mario Lanza; hello to the new magic: “Rock and Roll” with chart toppers like “Rock Around the Clock” and “Heartbreak Hotel”. And guess what? Yrs. truly was the proud possessor of the only pair of gold-chained blue suede shoes in town. (Two sizes too big, but extra socks and newspaper stuffing fixed that!) And the Grand Old Lady and I – we cosied up at last. Why? – cause Rock ‘n Roll Saturday nights at the Casino “Got everything that Uncle John needs, oh baby!”

Two films were memorable in 1957. The first (and only one I ever sat through twice –!) was Sophia Loren in “Boy on a Dolphin.” It was showing at the “State” where by then, to watch in “Cinemascope” you paid the lofty sum of thirty-five cents. The key scene begins quite matter-of-factly with Sofia as a sponge-collecting peasant, basking in the sea – ho – hum. But as the lens zooms in, what to my wondering eyes do appear but her far from miniature bosoms, bobbing up and down with the most indescribable rhythm? Cinemascope triumphant! Climbing the ladder – pneumatically ascending the ladder, I should say – she then stands all see-through and clingy, on deck.

Cut! – End of scene – out of sight but not out of mind! My overheated libido jammed in overdrive, I urgently took stock. Hey! Did that REALLY happen? They showed boobs in the movies? AGAIN! Let’s see it again, yes, yes . . . but . . er – uh – jeez fellas, it’s going to be kina a long wait!

Long indeed! I squirmed and fidgeted while the rest of the feature played on. Finally, the show started over; the news, previews, serial and cartoon. I took a desperation pee. Finally, “Boy on a Dolphin” resumed, the pace seemingly more interminable with each passing frame. . . Finally – FINALLY, all eternity did pass; at last, Sophia was back, bobbing in the sea.

Joyously corrupted, I exited the theatre. Much to my surprise, day had turned into night. Time in the “State” may well have ground to a halt; but outside, it seems Earth spun ‘round quite routinely. Marooned at some desolate bus stop, I sank into hollowed-out oblivion. Presumably, a bus did at last come.

Memorable film #2 of that year introduced a metaphysical, rather than erotic, conundrum. In the course of his closing monologue, The Incredible Shrinking Man intones: “So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite.” That got my attention, but what exactly, did it mean? A satisfying explanation was to be long in coming.

* * *

The present collection begins and ends with pieces composed for the long-departed Singapore Guitar Quartet. Though different as soup and nuts, both works share an affinity for what I (and minds far greater than mine) have referred to as the “crisis of modernity,” i.e., the “terms and conditions” imposed on modern art by scientific progress. There came a tipping point whereby art, as a mirror of life, was compelled to bear witness as humankind’s cherished notion of centrality in the scheme of creation was relegated to the hallowed assurances of religion. Amongst the revelations confronting modern artists are (1) the ever widening gulf between sensible human scale and insensible cosmological vastness; (2) the topsy-turvy post-Einstein vision of reality as relative to the viewpoint of the observer; and (3) the unnerving observation, that when magnified, matter appears Swiss-cheese-like, progressively more permeable.
On the plus side, science now has a satisfying answer to my 1957 conundrum: on his journey to sub-atomic oblivion, The Incredible Shrinking Man would tumble like an unfettered astronaut through a microcosmic “heavens” wherein the vastness between atoms would gradually become indistinguishable from that between stars! I still recall, as a boy walking those abandoned trolley tracks: by an effect peculiar to the child’s eye perhaps, the tracks could be seen to converge normally in the distance or could just as well be seen to boomerang back up my line of sight, diverging conveniently “just so that I might stride between them!” Sixty-five years down the road I wonder, was that just childish fantasy, or might the image have deeper connotations? Might the “real world” subsist in just some such niche, a transient divergence on a locus, a mere way station somewhere between the infinite and the infinitesimal?
Through the language of musical metaphor, “Riddles” and “The Second Quartet” seek, each in their own way, to address the crisis of modernity. As such, they serve as congenial bookends for the more traditional works nestled in between.

Riddles by Phoon Yew Tien

By initially concealing and then (through the variation process) gradually revealing the work’s main theme, the first movement embodies the “riddles” of its title. The movement ends in a sunburst of clarity. The theme, expressed in the bass, is accompanied by bell-tones in the other parts.

Although thematically rounded, the first movement leaves us somewhat in the dark in other respects. For In a sense, the thematic riddle has been exchanged for other riddles, concerning the composer’s rhythmic, textural and coloristic intentions. By drawing on his vast experience with both Chinese and Western orchestra, Phoon reveals his intentions convincingly. In complete contrast to the motoric pulsation of the first movement, he portrays an ambivalent world of contrasting tempi and textures where rapid canonical passagework and subtly blurred glissandi are juxtaposed against tranquil, chorale-like interludes. Upon higher magnification, the apparently dense packed texture reveals microscopic spaces through which eddies of conflict and ambivalence, buoyancy and light, interact.

Adagio from the Grand Sonata, Op. 22 by F. Sor

There are certain musical plots where, as in a detective story, the dénouement can only be effective once, upon first hearing. About halfway through, Sor constructs an elaborate ruse, the purpose being to persuade the uninitiated listener that the music is drawing to its conclusion. The rhetoric is persuasive, but at the same time, somehow, premature. Guess what? Out of that ambivalent pause, a Db major chord rises triumphant – a characteristic shock tactic from the pen of “the Beethoven of the guitar.” Sadly, a solo guitar’s capacity to express triumphalism in Db is restricted; pathetically so, if candour be admissible. Happy news – no such limitations afflict a quartet, a fact that would doubtless have delighted Sor.

To realize the Grand Solo’s massive (though largely implicit) architecture it seems, four guitars are none too many! Recognition of this fact was forthcoming from no less than Aaron Shearer: “What good sense (he mentioned in one of his letters) this makes!”

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by W.A. Mozart

If I were to choose a particular work from our repertoire to illustrate the superiority of the alto-alto-prime-bass configuration, it would be the present recording of Mozart’s timeless masterpiece. Put simply, a-a-p-b is the guitar equivalent of that most fundamental instrumental configuration, the string quartet. Apart from being transposed down a fifth, Mozart’s original is here performed unaltered.
And if I were to choose a best technical recording, the present one would also top the list, both as to effective stereo imaging and as a testimony to the felicity and tonal variety achievable on alto guitars. (Mr. Engineer, wherever you are, you were really good!) Recorded at the National University of Singapore in 1991 at one of our final concerts, the performance was possibly our finest. How wonderful that it was preserved!

A digression: What of the alto guitar as seen from a Western perspective? Although the smaller size and closer fret spacing make it better suited to Asian stature, the high frets are no closer than comparable semitones on the violin. As to Western perception that the alto sounds like a mandolin; to me, this is like comparing grapefruits and oranges. Since both instruments are members of the plucked string family, their tone is vaguely similar. But our primary image of articulation on the mandolin is by note reiteration by plectrum. A fairer comparison: pizzicato (plucked), mandolin notes hardly resemble those of the better sustained, mellower alto at all. Another bone of contention: that the alto sounds “plinky” in comparison to the prime. The aim within an instrument family is to complement, rather than duplicate, one another’s tone. So the alto and bass differ from the prime in the same sense as do the violin and ‘cello from the viola.

Second Quartet by Robert Luse – “Prologue to Imminent Departure”

Whether by entropy or the “big crunch,” cosmology teaches us that the universe is limited, with a finite beginning and end. It may thus be that to limit a motif to constructive (i.e., “life-enhancing”) forms of development might falsify its full potential; that is, to bear sweet fruit but also, to harbour of the seeds of its own annihilation. The Second Quartet is built on a motif with such dichotomizing potential (the opening five notes, based on the rising semi-tone).

First movement: Developed constructively, the apparently innocuous motif’s dual character is nonetheless foreshadowed by the punctuation of normal tone color by inconspicuous “ghost notes” – small anomalies inherent perhaps, even in the warp and woof of creation? Following development to a constructive climax, the transition to the work’s deconstructive phase assumes a light-hearted twist, the formidable performance issues having been preserved only in this barely audible, hiss-ridden recording. (Sorry folks, it was “hiss” or nothing!)

Second movement: Through prolonged attenuation by repeated notes, the motif’s dichotomizing “urge” becomes ever more insistent. The variegated world of the very small opens; darkness between thematic atoms expands. Relieved here and there by light hearted episodes, the shadow enlarges until from within, the seeds of annihilation blossom; an unbearable yearning for departure portends the music’s inevitable self-destruction as a spectacularly orchestrated “big crunch.”

Robert Luse with Lee Choon Boon and Roxana Waterson (Revised by R. Luse 20-8-14)

OF COLORS MOST FLEETING, VOL 2 – a review by Roxana Waterson

This second volume of “Of Colors Most Fleeting” provides a fitting sequel to the first. A diversity of classical works is bookended by new compositions, displaying the abilities of the A-A-P-B quartet formation to do justice to an equally wide range of music, both old and new. Riddles by Phoon Yewtien is a piece of unusual textures, some scurrying and dense, some lyrical and dreamy, bringing to mind for this listener the colors of the Chinese zither (gu zheng), or Japanese koto. In places, the music seems to evoke images of flowing water, or small boats rowing on a wide river, as it might be in a Chinese painting.

The monstrous fistfuls of notes making up Sor’s Grand Sonata, which have traditionally put off all but the most determined soloists, seem to expand quite naturally into Luse’s sensitive arrangement for quartet, allowing for a more fully realised expression and richer orchestration than the original solo version. One feels Sor would have approved. The second movement, presented here, demonstrates most convincingly the benefits of contrast between trebles and bass across the four-and-a-half octave span of the A-A-P-B quartet. Musically, this is a most impressive performance, with passages of great tenderness. Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik likewise shines with its clarity of tone, crisp articulations and delicacy of phrasing.

The collection ends with the compelling drama of the Luse 2nd quartet. The work begins in sunny mood, weaving an innocent melody with lilting rhythms, becoming abruptly shadowed and more complicated as we sense this theme heading off into more uncertain and anxious territory. After an increasingly discordant and disturbing passage, we return to a variation of the original theme but now with a slight sense of things coming undone, spinning off into uncharted realms. Gradually, an increasing sense of entropy prevails, all possible tones of the guitar being brought into play to suggest an unravelling, a tearing apart of the sonorous fabric, some notes pinging off into outer space. Momentarily we seem to hear the heavy tread of a peasant dance, almost immediately disintegrating, soulfully, into a series of melancholy chords and ripples, followed at length by faint tearing sounds becoming more insistently catastrophic and suggestive of a terrible, unstoppable derailing of something that must come apart at last. Apocalyptic irruptions of sound are followed by irrevocable silence – end of the world; a shocking sensation of loss. The startling originality of this work leaves a unique impression on the consciousness.

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