Kind of Like a Brilliant Accident

An essay on the String Quartet No.1 in E Minor composed by Ali Helnwein.

First of all, do people still compose string quartets these days? In this gym-going, latté-drinking, hummer driving, brave new word of 2006, does anyone still sit down with a pad of paper and a pen and write out a string quartet?

Well, you’d be surprised.

Ali Helnwein, 23, is a classically trained violinist, living in Los Angeles. He currently plays in two L.A. based bands as well as the Jr. Philharmonic Orchestra of California – but first and foremost Ali is a composer. A composer who was stuck in Ireland for three months last year and came back with the String Quartet No.1 in E minor.

He had left L.A. for his family’s home in Ireland last April and remained there for the remainder of the summer. The first few weeks his life consisted mainly of checking his emails (a lot) and barging in on his younger brother and his teenaged friends to see “what’s up” about five times a day. In the electric green of this island, the peace and quiet is supreme, the air is shockingly good and if you live in the countryside, you won’t be able to take two steps without stumbling over a cow. In other words, coming from L.A. you might not know where to put your hands for the first few days. It is genuinely a different planet over there and you almost feel the need for instructions on how to breathe. But once you figured out how to coexist in this overpowering wholesomeness, you begin to understand what a privilege it is to be there.

Having recently studied the laws of composition and listened to a lot of Dvorak, Ali Helnwein approached the piano in the entrance hall one morning with a pad of paper and a pen and went to work. The piano, by the way, was about as in-tune as a Japanese business man singing karaoke at 2 am, so I’m really not sure on how he did what he did. But in the course of a couple of months he had amassed a bunch of musical notations that he thought might sound good when played by two violins, a viola and a cello. “I couldn’t play the four parts together, but I could play two parts at a time – slowly – and then just think of what would logically sound good together” he explains, as though that makes the birth of a string quartet any easier to understand.

Back in L.A. he discovered he had made a $960 profit off of some penny shares that he purchased for $60 about a year earlier. With this money he hired the cream of L.A. studio musicians, put them in a recording studio together and heard for the first time what his quartet actually sounded like. He won’t admit it, but I’ll say it for him: he thought he had one hell of a quartet.

“I was surprised that the musicians were reading through it so easily and not only sight-reading it properly but also interpreting and phrasing it well. It gave the piece real life. The first and second movement went so smoothly that I could have used the first take. In fact, the second movement actually is all just the first take – first run through,” he says.

Ali Helnwein’s quartet is a journey through a set of ineffable moods – classical and honoring all traditions of classical structure but made for a new millennium. It is excellent proof that classical music has no reason to play dead. And neither does modern classical music have to exist purely of dissonant and intellectual sounds that you need a college degree to listen to. “Modern art” of whatever shape, form or size should not be concerned with being an erudite celebration of things that only a few people can feel snug about because they’re holding a martini glass and made some sense out of some metal stick protruding from the wall of a gallery. Art has only one purpose: to move. To move on all levels. You should never walk away from a true piece of art and be left the same –
un-dented, un-changed, with nothing new floating about in your head.

Moderm classical music, just like any category of art, still has the power to blow your mind and splatter it against the wall behind you. I think Ali Helnwein is one of the few composers who knows this to be true.

You might be sitting somewhere in the sweltering heat of midday Los Angeles – maybe in traffic, under billboards and advertisements that remind you that this is the era of cheap subsititutes – blunt, cynical, clumsy. But you are also sitting in a town whose underground sometimes produces genuine products of a new romantic movement.

The String Quartet No.1 in E Minor starts like a windswept landscape – overcast and abandoned. A strong current of all four instruments introduces the theme with an unexpected immediacy and pulls you into a story of which you are about to be the author.
From the headstrong first movement you’ll soon be dropped into five minutes and thirty-four seconds of someone’s bleeding heart – the second movement. Starting with a minimalistic plucking that sounds like the last raindrops of a storm, the music gracefully gives way to the slow and lulling depths of the cello. By the way, you’d be surprised how something that sounds like velvet can cut like a razor. But whatever dreams you might have lost yourself in, the third movement will wake you up. This is probably my favorite one. It starts with a perfectly planned turmoil of a rhythm. The rhythm attacks you without much of a warning and then lets off into a swaying dance through which you can sense the tension trembling. When the melody is at it’s most vulnerable the wrath of all four instruments climaxes again into chaos.

The music ends as abruptly as it begins – like a brilliant accident – and you are left by the side of a road with nothing but the world that has been scraped up in your mind, still throbbing.

And there you have it. The String Quartet No.1 in E Minor composed by Ali Helnwein, who fifteen years ago walked into the music room of a new school in order to choose an instrument to learn. He chose the violin, because it looked the best.

–Mercedes Helnwein