From its sparse, enigmatic beginning to its barely discernable conclusion almost 40 minutes later, Klaus Lang's Sei-Jaku for string quartet seems less like a work of music than an ambient experience, and less like an abstract structure to be analyzed than a philosophical meditation on the smallest particles of sound. Listeners are encouraged to play this disc at the softest possible volume, to re-create the drastically muted sound quality of the Arditti String Quartet's live performance. But this piece was plainly intended to be heard at the threshold of audibility, so that its rough or grating features would be reduced to the most delicate clicks, faintest squeaks, and slightest scraping noises. Music that begs to be "played down" this way is uncommon and almost too rarefied to describe or compare with better-known examples. Yet a number of composers have sought ways to express ideas at the softest end of the dynamic range, usually in imitation of the minimalistic quietism of Morton Feldman; other composers have used a tentative, pointillistic style, in emulation of Toru Takemitsu's explorations of raw sonorities for coloristic purposes. Lang's efforts are plainly in the latter category, not only because of his music's underdone content but also in his adoption of a Japanese ethos to lend his otherwise bland soundscape some exotic flavor. There is little room for compromise in appreciating Lang's ascetic aesthetic, so listeners will be divided over whether Sei-Jaku (roughly translated as "tarnished star") is worth hearing for transcending musical boundaries, or if its twittering noises and dim tones are little more than a kind of auditory feng shui for aficionados of the avant-garde. Either way, the Arditti String Quartet at least deserves recognition for its perseverance in this difficult, anemic, and unrewarding piece, and Edition RZ deserves kudos for having the courage to release such controversial, if not always convincing, fare.
Klaus Lang: Sei-Jaku für Streichquartett Review
by Blair Sanderson