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European premiere of Charles Mingus’s String Quartet No 1

August 2019

Apartment House’s Anton Lukoszevieze sets the scene for a rediscovered Mingus composition that the ensemble will perform with Elaine Mitchener at September’s Totally Thames Festival

“As I say, let my children have music. Jazz – the way it has been handled in the past – stifles them so that they only believe in the trumpet, trombone, saxophone, maybe a flute now and then or a clarinet... I think it is time our children were raised to think they could play bassoon, oboe, English horn, French horn, percussion, violin, cello... If we so-called jazz musicians who are composers, the spontaneous composers, started including these instruments in our music, it would open everything up, it would get rid of prejudice because the musicianship would be so high in calibre that the symphony couldn’t refuse us” – Charles Mingus

Some ten years ago I was reading a biography of Charles Mingus. Towards the end of the book I came across a brief reference to a string quartet that Mingus had written for a 1972 concert in New York City, at the Whitney Museum of Art. The full title was String Quartet No 1 and I was intrigued. Since then I have come to realise the profound interest and engagement, that many African-American composers had for modern composition. Ornette Coleman in particular composed works for orchestra and for string quartet. Eric Dolphy was working on a string quartet before his untimely death and Mingus composed several large ensemble compositions.

Rewind back ten years. I began to investigate the Mingus quartet. I discovered that his papers were kept in the Library of Congress Collection in Washington DC, I contacted them and was able, after a lengthy process, to obtain copies of the original sketches, score and parts. In addition I received the blessing of Mingus’s widow Sue Mingus to perform the work. Interestingly, it was not just a string quartet, but a rather odd one: violin, viola and two cellos with a voice part.

The voice part was a setting of a poem entitled The Clown by Frank O’Hara. There are many aspects of the poem that one can relate to Mingus’s own life and personality, it reads to me as a portrait of him as a complex and rather melancholic figure. On some pages of the original manuscript is written The Clown, as a title, which is crossed out and replaced with String Quartet No 1. This may be because of Mingus’s earlier album called The Clown, or maybe he wanted a more traditional classical title? The Whitney concert was in memory of Frank O’Hara, who had died tragically in 1966, with works by Lucia Dlugoszewski, Lucas Foss, Lester Trimble, Ned Rorem and Virgil Thomson. The musical writing is quite extreme, with large, angular, melodic leaps and jarring harmonies. It is dark, bitter almost, and resolutely modern. The vocal part is for a low female voice, with some higher moments. The impression I have is of a highly compressed, intense, expressionistic mono-drama.

After sitting on the score for some years I pondered on how and with whom to perform this rare work? Subsequently working with Elaine Mitchener on a number of projects such as the music of Julius Eastman, the answer was obvious – this was a perfect work for her and Apartment House. We did not have a good performing score or parts, which all needed editing, so I asked my colleague Kerry Yong to work on the score and create a new edition for us to perform from. After some time Kerry pointed out that the string quartet could just as easily be performed by a normal string quartet of two violins, viola and cello, and for practical reasons this is how we shall perform it this September, 15 times, at the Totally Thames Festival in the bascule chamber underneath Tower Bridge. The subterranean and distinctly strange environment of the bascule chamber will be fitting, I feel, as a location to relaunch this strange and forgotten work.

“Can’t you just call it Mingus music?” – Charles Mingus

Apartment House and Elaine Mitchener present the European premiere performance of Charles Mingus’s String Quartet No 1 between 18–22 September at Totally Thames Festival.

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