By James R. Oestreich
Many a musical work can seem an affliction, usually because the composer intends to provoke or is simply incompetent. But two of the three composers represented in a program by the Miró Quartet at Weill Recital Hall on Friday evening made pointed use of their own ear affliction, tinnitus, to engender empathy and understanding.
Brent Michael Davids's "Tinnitus Quartet," in its New York premiere, evoked the buzzing and ringing that characterize the condition. Mr. Davids constantly hears a high A, he says, and he reproduces it an octave lower through most of this 16-minute work. As that sustained pitch slowly shifts from one instrument to another, the remaining players work around it, producing skittish tremolos, slides and scrapes that hint at other aural aberrations as well.
Short-breathed, repetitive melodies break through occasionally and come to dominate in what might be called an apotheosis. But the real apotheosis follows, with the tinnitus tone surrounded by suggestions of chirping crickets.
Mr. Davids, a Mohican whose Indian name is Blue Butterfly, says in the program notes that crickets are choice companions. They mask the affliction, he adds, allowing him "to 'tune it out' for periods of time." And the conclusion of this unsettling work vividly illustrates the relief they can provide.
Bedrich Smetana makes briefer and subtler use of a tinnitus tone - in his case an E - in his autobiographical quartet, "From My Life." He called it "the fateful ringing in my ears that announced the beginning of my deafness." Though this work makes more traditional use of a string quartet, it is slightly untamed and powerfully moving, especially in a supercharged rendering like that of the Miró Quartet.
The other performances were also well adapted to the disparate styles. And the program, opening with an early Beethoven quartet (Op. 18, No. 6), almost had the courage of its convictions. Beethoven, after all, went deaf, too.
But if the deterioration had in fact set in by the time Beethoven's Opus 18 was published, in 1801,it had surely not yet come to pervade his compositional consciousness. The brooding or lofty isolation of a late quartet might have set the table more tellingly if less soothingly.