February 28, 2019
Frank Horvat (1974- )is a Canadian composer and musician with a profound interest in social justice and human rights. In this 35 movement string quartet he is concerned with memorializing the lives of 35 activists who died while furthering the cause of human rights. This work is made even more compelling by including photos from a photo essay of the subjects taken by Luke Duggleby, a Thai-based photographer and journalist.
Without a doubt this is a shining example of what I have termed, “Political Classical”, a genre of protest music which seems to have emerged in the twentieth century. This work takes its place now with Frederic Rzewski’s Pueblo Unido Variations, and works by composers like Luigi Nono, Hans Werner Henze, and countless others who have chosen to use their expertise in the classical genre to write works analogous to the folk protest music which is perhaps better known to the listening public.
With songs one has the words which can directly or indirectly evoke the particular issue being addressed. But, other than a dedication in the program notes, how does one imbue their music with the intended meaning for a given protest work. Well, Mr. Horvat has chosen to utilize only the letters from these victims’ names to form the musical material for each portrait. That is he uses the letters which correspond to musical notes. Most famously this practice is known through the B, A, C, H (corresponding in German notation as B flat, A, C, B) theme which is the basis for Bach’s Art of Fugue.
By itself this can be a bland and meaningless exercise but Horvat manages to work within this carefully limited framework to create 35 very convincing portraits of these Human Rights Heroes. The 35 movements are relatively brief and put this listener in the mind of composers who have succeeded quite well with such a format such as Alan Hovhaness and Lou Harrison. Both of these composers and the man in discussion here work in a basically tonal framework with a balanced and judicious use of dissonance. What is curious is how he seems to succeed in evoking these people purely through sound.
In comes the Mivos Quartet whose job it is to make sense of the composer’s intentions and breath life into the notes on the page. This New York based string quartet consists of Olivia de Prato, violin; Maya Bennardo, violin; Victor Lowrie Tafoya, viola; and Tyler J. Borden, cello. And let’s just say they are up to the task. Each movement takes on its individual character but retains a larger connection to the work as a whole. Perhaps this is also a metaphor for the nature of individuality as part of the larger concept of humanity and why each perspective is vital to our collective survival.
Before I wax too philosophical let me just say that, at least in terms of this recording, this is a document of classical string quartet which also serves as a memorial to the victims it references and, hopefully, as a sort of wake up call to those who, for whatever reason, are unaware of these atrocities. Ultimately, I suppose, the goal is the amelioration of inhumane practices. But until then we may find comfort in the beauty which this composer has brought to this work. This would seem to be a stab at acknowledgement of sacrifice in the name of human rights seeking justice but, for now, we must settle for beauty even if it brings tears which are a mix of both sadness and joy.
Allan J. Cronin – NewMusicbuff.com
BBC Music Magazine
January 31, 2019
Performance **** Recording ****
Born in 1974, Frank Horvat is a multi-genre Canadian Composer whose music reflects a longstanding commitment to social justice. For those Who Died Trying is the title of a photo essay by photographer Luke Duggleby which documents the murder or abduction of 35 Thai Human Rights Defenders over the past 20 years, inspiring Horvat’s string quartet, The Thailand HRDs.
Performed with intensity and poise by the Mivos Quartet, the work mirrors Duggleby’s procedure whereby a portrait of each individual or pair of HRDs was photographed at the exact site of their shooting or kidnap in 35 through-composed vignettes of approximately two minutes’ length. Horvat creates musical portraits in kind, each utilising pitches taken from the letters of the victim’s name.
The resulting tributes are poignant in their simplicity. Regardless of limited material – No. 5 for instance, to Boonsom Nimmoi, comprises chugging unisons and octaves – the emotional range is surprisingly broad, spanning melancholy, defiance and even whimsy in conveying a sense of the profound courage shown by ordinary people in the face of existential threat. Most chillingly, the open-ended nature of the quartet-as-roll-call points to ongoing such atrocities in Thailand and elsewhere around the world.
Steph Power – BBC Music Magazine
November 27, 2018
It is impossible to escape Frank Horvat’s mystical hypothesis that music is somehow part of all human DNA. It is also a testament to the genius of Horvat that he is able to craft this into each segment of this unique 35-movement string quartet so that each so comes poignantly alive with the personality of 35 Thai environmentalists and human rights warriors who died in the act of defending the truth. The magical experience magnifies exponentially as one is struck by the fact that the inspiration for all of this is, further, inspired by a visual essay created by photographer Luke Duggleby titled For Those Who Died Trying.
Both Horvat and Duggleby have been transformed by the senseless murders of the 35 Human Rights Defenders (HRDs). The portraits of the HRDs made by the photographer are starkly unglamorous images of each defender. The musical resurrections are Horvat’s as he melds the story of each life and death, using a unique melodic language in which the poignant sense of humanity and tragic loss is never far from the surface of each piece.
The Mivos Quartet, a unique string ensemble, responds brilliantly to this music. There’s a strong sense, in each of the 35 sections, of the quartet functioning like actors in some powerful tragedy. Each musician, solo and in ensemble, controls his forces with an unfailing sense of the right emphasis and the right moment together to deliver performances of affecting power.
Raul da Gama - The WholeNote
A Closer Listen
November 1, 2018
Here’s something that shouldn’t happen, but does. One should be able to protest garbage being dumped in one’s village or the environmental effects of a coal-fired plant without getting shot. But dozens of people have been abducted or killed in Thailand during the last couple decades while attempting to protect their rights. For Those Who Died Trying is a multi-media presentation that shines a light on the horrible truth that sometimes evil wins. The alternate name for the set is the Thailand HRDs (Human Rights Defenders). The project hopes to draw enough attention and motivate enough people to swing the pendulum back to goodness.
The impetus for the project is a series of photographs taken by British photographer Luke Duggleby, each placed at the spot of the activist’s disappearance or murder. In concert settings, the photos are prominently displayed as each piece is played. Canadian composer Frank Horvat uses only the letters (pitches) found in each victim’s name to prepare these short, sharp pieces, performed here by New York’s Mivos Quartet.
35 victims, 35 pieces, 35 lives lost, 35 spirits sonically recovered. These compositions are gifts, tenderly composed and gorgeously played. The timbres of Thailand are sprinkled throughout, adding just the right amount of regional connection. The pitch restriction is a source of inspiration, leading Horvat to be creative in his choices, lending each track a unique feel. Each surviving family can proclaim, “this is the song of the one I love.” Averaging only two minutes apiece, the songs operate as snapshots, mirroring the photos, producing an impact far greater than their size and duration.
Given such an inspiration, we’d probably be happy with these pieces no matter how they turned out. But they are universally moving. Every piece is strong in its own way, just as every activist was strong in his or her own way. According to Horvat, the pieces are meant not only to be “melancholic but have a tinge of defiance.” Opener “Ari Songkraw” sets the stage with peaceful plucks and mournful bows. There’s life here, even in the presence of death. When the strains of “Charoen Wat-Aksorn” enter, the powerful cello sounds more like a continuance of the initial theme than a new work, underlining the connections of community. These activists were all distinct, but they all shared a common bond, even without meeting. “Narin Phodaeng” is playful and romantic; was he the same in real life? The strains of “Boonrit Channanrong” are foreboding, as if to signify impending danger. Most of these activists were warned, but continued to fight, a second wave of courage that led to their deaths.
For once, we don’t want to choose any favorite tracks. There’s little point, as the quality is so high. Instead, we invite those who interact with this project to treat it as one might a yearbook of significant strangers. Listen to each piece as you gaze into the eyes of the deceased. Send a prayer to the cosmos on their behalf. Pause, if you will, in silence. And then, if you are so moved ~ if the violin vibrates in your heart, if the cello touches your soul, become an activist. It doesn’t take much, and it’s probably safer where you are. Let these stories, that ended all too soon, continue. May evil be drenched in goodness. May hate be drowned in love.
Richard Allen - ACloserlisten.com