Stirling Newberry is a liberal classicist.
It’s fashionable to say about the music of a new composer that the music is “unclassifiable”, and that “you have never heard anything like before”. I can’t think of any music that’s had that label applied to it that hasn’t been a crushing disappointment, largely because of the expectations created by that label.
Newberry’s music embraces labeling. You could even say it is about labels. By inviting labeling the music makes its listeners acutely aware of the lines, the boundaries between labels. When the music pushes against the boundaries, the fun begins.
The piece (String Quartet in C, No. 11, Op. 41) begins like many others—a repeating figure creates a rhythmic and harmonic space for the music. Then a melody, a rising, expressive melody with a clear, memorable shape appears and is immediately repeated.
His music embodies the goals of classicism—form, proportion, simplicity, and restraint. The string quartets on this disc make a strong argument for the validity of this approach in the 21st century.
But Newberry’s materials—his themes, rhythms, phrase-structures, etc.—are very much of our time. He is a liberal classicist. His liberality and classicism spring from the same encyclopedic need he seems to have to explore a genre by writing in every key. In these pieces you can find dances both baroque and modern, ostinatos and riffs, and learned techniques like fugue alongside romantic flights of fancy.
The melody is repeated immediately and then imitated by other instruments. This is not unusual. Where Newberry’s eclectic classicism comes into play is in what follows: a headlong series of repetitions of the theme placed in (seemingly) every harmonic space that “works”. Add to that the metrical displacement Newberry is fond of (where the melody is started at different places of the meter) and you have the essence of his style.
The two quartets on this disc comprise a snapshot of Newberry’s music at the time they were written. The boundaries are vivid, and though they are breached, they remain vital and exploitable.
-- Steve Hicken