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I have been interested in mixing cultural aesthetics and musical styles for all of my life. Gunther Schuller coined the term “third stream” to describe the intertwining of American jazz with the Western European musical traditions. Of course there are so many branches to the trees of both African American music and the European traditions, that Schuller’s term can only have a very general meaning. Still, the “third stream” description does fit my Three Fantasies. In these three movements I combine different materials, styles, and developmental methods, mixing traditions freely, as I attempt to create a specifically American new music.

To me the string quartet represents the epitome of the Western European classical music tradition, so there is something slightly rebellious, even cheeky, about writing seriously bluesy, groovy music for this idiom. Yet the concept is so very American. As contemporary music goes, this is very accessible and entertaining stuff. I don’t mean to intimate that the music of Three Fantasies is light or devoid of deeper meaning. I mean that, like all good classical music, which is well-made and full of detail, this music moves and delights as it uplifts the listener. At least that is what I hope to achieve here.

The first movement is based on the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” composed in the 1860s by Wallis Willis, a Choctaw freedman, and made famous shortly thereafter by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. I alternate between tonal statements of the theme and more abstract restatements. In the middle of the movement, the tempo quickens and a freely brilliant, albeit hushed toccata brings the movement to a close.

Movement Two is based on a recording made by Alan Lomax in 1948 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm in Sunflower County MS.) In this recording one hears the women’s detail striking axes together in a slow grooving tempo, as the women sing a two phrase work song, endlessly repeating. My musical presentation begins and ends with the players tapping their instruments in imitation of the axes. The two-phrase theme follows and is repeated again and again, becoming more and more abstracted until it dissolves into nothing but the sound of the axes hitting, fading.

The third movement, based on the southern U.S. children’s song, “Shortening Bread,” is a full out, brilliant toccata and it is meant to be freewheeling, virtuosic fun. For decades I have improvised a version of “Shortening Bread” in piano concerts. This string quartet version is a kind of notated improvisation. — Gary Smart


Recording of Three Fantasies on African American Songs for string quartet - I Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is available here:

Recording of Three Fantasies on African American Songs for string quartet - II Black Woman is available here:

Recording of Three Fantasies on African American Songs for string quartet - III Shortening Bread is available here:

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