Czech composer Miroslav Srnka at the Phillips Collection
Saturday, October 15, 2011 at 11:44AM
Stephen Brookes

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • October 14, 2011

If you want people to listen, don’t shout; whisper. That might be the thinking behind the music of Miroslav Srnka, a young Czech composer who appeared at the Phillips Collection with the Fama Quartet on Thursday night to open the gallery’s Leading European Composers series.

Miroslav Srnka / photo Nico Serda Srnka presented three of his recent chamber works for strings, intriguing pieces that explored a sound world of spare, often rough textures and fragile sonorities — and rarely rose above a delicate pianissimo. The evening opened with “Tree of Heaven,” a single-movement string trio from 2010. Named after the tenacious Chinese plant, it opened with a sudden, brutal chord but quickly quieted into a landscape of scratches, insistent tremolos, microtonal slides and other evocative sounds, often at the edge of audibility.

Srnka’s music isn’t “atonal” so much as “post-tonal”; by making it so quiet, Srnka unveils subtle and wildly complex sonorities, taking the emphasis off the tone and placing it on the sound itself, to striking and beautiful effect. That approach seems to be his signature, for it continued into “That Long Town of White to Cross,” a soliloquy for violin that takes its title and mood from the Emily Dickenson poem “It Can’t Be Summer.”

The composer is fortunate to have exceptional interpreters in the Fama players — also Czech — and violinist David Danel was particularly adept at tying the delicate wisps of sound into a coherent whole. But the high point of the evening may have been the premiere of Srnka’s fourth quartet, “Engrams”  — a term my dictionary defines as “a hypothetical permanent change in the brain accounting for the existence of memory.” Srnka juxtaposed his vocabulary of tremolos and dry scuttlings against simple rising and falling lines throughout the one-movement work, creating an elusive, soft-edged but tangible world — much like memory itself.

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