String Quartet No. 1: New Memories

  • September 9, 1987
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Commissioned: Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and Louise T. Trigg to celebrate the centennial of Georgia O'Keefe's birth, and to celebrate her matchless spirit

Premiere: August 8, 1987; Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Santa Fe; Mendelssohn String Quartet

Duration: 24’




I was thrilled when the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival invited me to compose a piece in memory of Georgia O'Keefe on her centennial and the fifteenth anniversary season of the festival. Since the festival's inception in 1973, O'Keefe -- who lived in nearby Abiquiu and attended its concerts regularly -- gave permission every year for one of her paintings to be reproduced for the now-famous festival posters. I had long been an admirer of O'Keefe's strong, independent pictures and immediately embarked on a study of her life and work. The festival kindly arranged for me to visit her home in Abiquiu and at Ghost Ranch. Being in her beloved desert-world, listening to her friend's recollections of her, and standing in her studio all made me feel close to O'Keefe. While I composed, her attitudes on life and art penetrated my thoughts and I sensed her presence, uncompromising, undying.


A comment she made in her book suggested a mood-world for the music I was to write. Remembering her early days in the cattle-shipping center of Amarillo, Texas, she wrote: "For days we would see large herds of cattle with their clouds of dust being driven slowly across the plains toward the town. When the cattle arrived they were put in pens near the station, separated from their calves and sometimes kept there for two or three days. The lowing of the cattle was loud and sad -- particularly haunting at night. 'From the Plains I' and 'Orange and Red Streak' were painted in New York months after I left that wide world. And years later, I painted it twice again. The cattle in the pens lowing for their calves day and night was a sound that has always haunted me. It had a regular rhythmic beat like the old Penitente songs, repeating the same rhythms over and over all through the day and night. It was loud and raw under the stars in the wide empty country."


I completed New Memories in Texas the spring after O'Keefe died. It is in six movements. The first movement is fast, bustling music -- an overture. The second is slow, pastoral, plaintive. Its harmonies unfold gradually -- around, but rarely on, the beat. The third movement turns all of the music from the second into a brief spurt of notes. The fourth movement is slow like the second but has slightly different harmonies. The dense, fifth movement folds the second and fourth together as one. The sixth movement is a fast version and ornamentation of the fifth. It has a coda in which the cello plays a tune from the Penitente's songs called Alabados -- the songs O'Keefe heard in the desert: songs in praise of the Virgin, songs to honor the dead, the music of sorrow.


-Tobias Picker Rhinebeck, New York


The New York Times - Will Crutchfield

"...But there is also a composer in residence, Tobias Picker, this year, and the satisfying center of attention Sunday was the first performance of his string quartet New Memories. The piece was commissioned in memory of Georgia O'Keeffe, who spent many of her 98 years living near Santa Fe, and whose work is prominent in the museum's collection..."


"Mr. Picker's idiom is personal and lively. His quartet is full of bustling energy, uneven meters and dissimilar modes of expression for the different instruments..."


"New Memories is a "tonal" piece, though it is not at all neo-Romantic. One could even say it is "in C." The first three notes define a C major triad, barely glimpsed before it flits out of view. Each of the six movements begins with C and ends somewhere else -- but somewhere not too distant. A quick perusal of the score suggests that it could be subjected to traditional harmonic analysis."


"The most beautiful movements were those whose still, wailing harmonies and slow motion evoked the broad expanse of the land here, the elemental simplicity of O'Keeffe's paintings of a wall of her house here and the spirit of the hymns of the penitents..."


"Parts of the last three movements -- and perhaps others but those were the obvious ones -- treated the same groups of notes in different rhythmic and dynamic guises, a device Mr. Picker said he had borrowed from O'Keeffe's strikingly diverse multiple treatments of the same subject. It is a lucid, engaging piece; we will surely be hearing it in New York soon."


The New York Times - Bernard Holland

"The Mendelssohn String Quartet hit upon a workable theme, invited a few guest musicians and produced an evening at Merkin Concert Hall on Saturday that both demanded and held the attention of its good-sized audience..."


"In six string-quartet movements Mr. Picker's effusiveness, especially his use of high registers in the violin writing, updates the straining new-Romantic manner of Schoenberg, Berg and Zemlinsky. There is abrasiveness but there are also moments of sustained lyrical writing, both very surely handled."



Houston Post - Carl Cunningham

"Tobias Picker, the Houston Symphony's composer-in-residence, was awarded the special privilege of also serving as this year's composer-in-residence at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival."


"His appointment carried the very special honor of composing a string quartet to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the distinguished American artist Georgia O'Keeffe, whose paintings have decorated Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival posters and programs since the festival's inception 15 years ago."


"Picker's beautiful six-movement quartet, titled New Memories, received its official world premiere Sunday evening. I heard a gorgeous preview performance of the work by the Mendelssohn String Quartet ensemble several hours earlier at a midday "musical conversation..."


"The composer has obviously been of one mind with the artist, for within the framework of his neo-romantic style, Picker has expressed himself in a very moving work. It is terse music, focusing intently on its thematic materials. But for all its urgency, it is also a very lyrical work, conveying a sense of repose as much as it conveys a sense of striving."


"The texture of Picker's quartet is also very airy, seemingly admitting shafts of light between its melodic lines. In that respect, it seems like a musical representation of O'Keeffe's earliest childhood memory of "the brightness of light," which Picker commented upon in his introductory remarks..."


"The emotional heart of the music comes in [the] scherzo and the two beautiful adagio movements surrounding it. The second of these adagios (the fourth movement of the quartet) is a particularly searing, intense movement and its climax is the true dramatic core of the work."



Seattle Post-Intelligencer - Louise Kincaid

"The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival ended its ninth season in Seattle last evening in grand style. As it does each season, the festival has garnered raves from audiences and critics alike. And it is no wonder: its level of music-making is profound and exciting."


"The program featured the west coast premiere of Tobias Picker's string quartet New Memories, commissioned in honor of the centennial of Georgia O'Keeffe's birth..."


"...New Memories is a masterful combination of tonality challenging atonality. Picker has a great deal to say and he says it both eloquently and economically."


"New Memories is an extraordinary work that reflects O'Keeffe from her spare eloquence to her elusive beauty. The music, though sophisticated, evolves totally naturally and unpretentiously."



Albuquerque Journal - David Noble

"Tobias Picker, composer-in-residence at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, waited until the 15th year of his career to write a string quartet. On the evidence of Monday's realization of it by the Mendelssohn String Quartet in the St. Francis Auditorium, he was ready.New Memories, commissioned by the festival for world premiere performances last weekend, is a major contribution to the growing body of important American quartets..."


"...Picker's work makes musical analogies with some of O'Keeffe's practices as painter, particularly that of returning to a subject in later frames, from different angles or viewpoints. But the new quartet paid even deeper tribute through vividness and the gripping power of its haunted moods -- this is music that deals with highly charged feelings and memories, even as O'Keeffe's pictures do..."


"The sixth and final segment began, of course, from [this] angular music, injecting it into the slow, momentous material. The lively subject became accompaniment to a broad violin melody, then was worked all through the texture in a remarkably lively, wide-ranging musical discussion that broke through to yet further levels of musical space and energy..."


"O'Keeffe's memory was well served by this tribute from a composer who had been aware of her work but became more deeply engrossed in her art and spirit while crafting his tribute..."


Recording available on First Edition Records and Elektra


TP MI0000960122

For string quartet