STRING QUARTET NO. 3 (THE QUESTIONING) 2013. Commissioned by the Afiara String Quartet with a grant from the Ontario Arts Council. 25 minutes. Score and parts available through PROMETHEAN EDITIONS.


Commissioned by the Afiara String Quartet with a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, String Quartet No. 3 (The Questioning) was composed during January and July 2013. Initially, the quartet had a different subtitle ("The Thanksgiving.") My creative intentions were different too. Being a person of strong religious faith, I wanted this work to be a spiritual thanksgiving for all the wonderful gifts that I have been blessed with in this life, but, during the course of the composition, and influenced by circumstances within my close circle of friends, I felt drawn to explore the psychological conditions which ultimately lead one to atheism. My faith is one of inclusion, of respect for the Other and of trying to understand from the inside the person or idea that stands opposite me. Because of this, the work gradually transformed from one of thanksgiving to a musical exploration of the spiritual and psychological underpinnings of religious questioning and  the kind of ideological entrenchment which increasingly in our days we mistake for "reality."

The catalyst to my musical thinking in this quartet was "Tis theos megas," an Eastern Orthodox chant which is based on two lines (13 and 14) from Psalm 77, composed by Asaph, King David's chief musician and prophet. The Byzantine incarnation of the text reads "What God is as great as our God? You are our God, who alone performs wonders." A year before embarking on the composition of the quartet, I met Vassilis Agrocostas, a lyrical cantor who is the Meistersinger at the Church of St. Demetrius in Volos, the city of my birth in Greece. I asked Vassilis if he would lend his voice to this project and he agreed. I requested a recording of "Tis theos megas" in A-flat major (the Byzantine mode is echos varys or 3rd plagal mode.) Each of my string quartets so far begin exactly where the previous quartet leaves off and my second quartet ends with the Byzantine chant of the transfiguration, also in echos varys, principally delivered by the cello and ending in A-flat. In keeping with this practice, String Quartet No. 3 begins in A-flat with the pre-recorded voice of Vassilis Agrocostas accompanied by the cello, the instrument that had the last word in the previous quartet.

As the title suggests, Affirmation, the first movement, is imbued with certainty. It is an intellectual certainty, however, which, as soon as it is declared, becomes entangled in language-related complexities, principally theological definitions which become corrupted in translation, causing semantic ambiguities and eventually doctrinal schisms. (Even the language of the psalm is not devoid of such discrepancies. For example, the question "What god is great as our God?" implies a polytheistic context against which the great God of Israel can be showcased, something that Asaph or any other Biblical figure would have certainly not intended.) Because of its dependence on language and the particularities of a specific language, this affirmation is garbed in tribal clothing from the outset, irrespective of its claims to universality. After the initial delivery by the cantor and the cello, the chant is elaborated by the upper strings, initially with drones but soon with harmonies which become increasingly romantic and mildly jazz infused. The main theme of the movement does not appear until the original chant has undergone a couple of significant harmonic transformations. When it finally arrives, it is Central-Asian sounding and is tonally and rhythmically ambivalent: it fluctuates between parallel major and minor modes and is twenty-one eighth-notes long so, when it repeats, it starts alternatingly on strong and weak beats. Its inherent complexity is further enhanced by metric modulations and other rhythmic superimpositions. Syntactical complexities notwithstanding, however, the music is celebratory and exuberant—an affirmation and celebration of faith.

Denial, the second movement, is a radical change in mood. It is aggressive and relentlessly pushing forward with manic energy. Dissonance, paroxysmal gesturing and total absence of tonality in the first three quarters of the movement are the tools used to describe a psychological state in which the connection with the Divine (re-legio) has atrophied to the point where the constituent parts disassemble and come onto their own independently. The "cantus firmus" underlying this movement is the first musical phrase of the chant which corresponds to the first two words of the text: "What God?" In this and other respects, this movement is a denial of God, which is the consequence of an atrophied spiritual core. The playing with numbers in the main theme of the first movement which was part of the affirmation of a connection between the visible and invisible realms, becomes here self-purposed. Even though the second movement sounds complex, it is, by comparison to the first movement, simple arithmetic. A sixteenth-note is added or subtracted from a set of notes after each iteration of the set, the mechanical additions or subtractions causing the impression of forward momentum in the melody. Inevitable as it may sound, particularly at cadential points, this process is divorced of any real purpose: it just is. Towards the end, there is a sense of spiritual stirring. Tonal chords momentarily appear in mechanical sequences (distant memories of a more connected past) but they are not enough to cause a reversal of outlook. The movement ends with a solemn, and stubborn, restatement of the pervasive argument in this movement: "What God?"

Epiphany, the relatively short third movement serves as an antidote to the second and, to some extent, the first. It is unpretentious and devoid of ambition, its melodies emerging gracefully from the surrounding "waters" alluded to by the harmonic series of the open strings of the quartet. It is a glimpse of a future state of mind and spirit, which we have not evolved sufficiently yet to attain but are slowly becoming aware of its existence and imminent advent within our earthbound consciousness. It is a New Age; a new paradigm of innocence and childlike awareness waiting for us around history's next corner; a Second Coming.

Premiere performance: May 22, 2014. The Afiara String Quartet, 21C Festival. Koerner Hall, Toronto, Canada.

Reviews and Comments:

Blown away by @AfiaraQuartet and their sublime performance of @ChristosHatzis piece "The Questioning"! #21C @the_rcm Sarah Slean on Twitter. 2014 05 22.

@ChristosHatzis' piece, the Questioning, was absolutely stunning. I had to remind myself to breathe! #21C @the_rcm Rebecca Webster on Twitter. 2014 05 22

Beautiful performance by @AfiaraQuartet, premiering equally gorgeous String Quartet No. 3 by @ChristosHatzis #21CMusic. Royal Conservatory of Music (Canada) on Twitter. 2014 05 22

Hatzis’s String Quartet No. 3 was the perfect way to open the concert. The piece, set in three movements, was an exploration of faith and the turmoil and questioning that leads to atheism. Beginning with a melody in the cello set against a recording of an Eastern Orthodox chant, Hatzis invoked the melodies and rhythms of his native Greece, with long, elegant lines juxtaposed by short, quick moving sections. The first movement, far more broad and melodic, worked against the second which was faster, meaner, and much more raw, and the ending brought back the motifs from the first movement. This is a quartet I would very much like to hear again someday. Paolo Griffin, NEW MUSIC TORONTO 2014 05 23.

The first performance of the evening was Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis’s third string quartet, The Questioning. Most of Hatzis’ recent music grapples with postmodernism, multiculturalism and its often-tenuous relationship with Western classical music.  Hatzis’ string quartet, which opens with a recording of Greek Orthodox chant, blends elements of Eastern music and contemporary classical form and techniques. Extended techniques on the strings conjured images of both contemporary classical music and non-Western instruments; expressive portamento recalled the quarter-tone slides of Eastern vocal techniques, as well as late Romantic string quartet music. The overarching form of the quartet’s three movements, though cast as a cyclical spiritual journey, ultimately recalled the traditional Western musical narrative of exposition, development and tension, and eventual resolution. Despite the extra-musical narratives of spiritual struggle, the strongest characteristics ultimately lay in the quartet’s traditional form, which produced an utmost musical clarity. Tyle Versluis, MUSICAL TORONTO. 2014 05 23.

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