Multitude, Solitude (2013)

For String Quartet

Commissioned by the Momenta Quartet and made possible by a grant from the American Composers Forum with funds provided by the Jerome Foundation

Duration: 16 minutes

Program Note:

“Multitude, Solitude” focuses on the presence of multitude in a moment of solitude. It is inspired by a vivid memory on Aldeburgh Beach, which I visited in the summer of 2012. Aldeburgh is a small town on England’s eastern coast, sitting along the North Sea, home to both fishermen and Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival, in which I was participating. One dusk I walked alone on the shingle beach, seagulls calling forlornly, circling overhead, their paths gracefully crisscrossing high in the sky, while the North Sea beckoned, crashing resonantly on the pebble shore. I was captivated by the peacefulness and beauty of the moment, the solitude I felt, but also by the multitude that accompanied me. Two or three gulls flew overhead, and then hundreds more joined, creating a dense constellation of birds, reaching as far up as I could see. The sea itself was a vast multitude, breaking on the thousands of shingles on the shore. 

I take these elements as a starting point and develop them musically, following them to new places. In the opening section you will hear a lamenting melody, which passes through the quartet, set on top of a background web of delicately shifting harmonic glissandi. As the piece progresses, the music becomes more passionate, and you will hear a multitude of voices, both fighting for prominence and also working together to create unity.

The phrase “Multitude, solitude” is a quotation from Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, a collection of prose poems that he wrote describing city life. I moved to New York City a few months before my trip to Aldeburgh, and Baudelaire’s line was in my mind as I strolled on the beach. It was my initial intent to compose my quartet using Baudelaire’s phrase as a way of reflecting on my newfound experiences living in New York – how I find moments of solitude amidst the multitude of the bustling city. Instead, my experience on Aldeburgh’s beach inspired the reverse – how I saw the multitude that exists within a moment of complete solitude. Perhaps my sensitivity to nature’s quiet was heightened by months of living in New York, where the city sounds are an enveloping presence. I think of this work as a product of my experiences in both Aldeburgh and New York, whether felt directly or indirectly in the music.

"Multitude, Solitude" was commissioned by the Momenta Quartet and was made possible by a grant from the American Composers Forum with funds provided by the Jerome Foundation.


From the Liner Notes from the commercial recording on Albany Records:

The varieties of musical time in Multitude, Solitude work to suggest the shifting emotional states, meditative to active, one encounters in such circumstances, but outside details are also sketched in—the mournful cries of seagulls, the power and vastness of the North Sea. The piece opens with glassy sounds of string harmonics, a melodic fragment over glissandi; the viola’s non-harmonic statement of the same fragment is intrusive and insistent, the cello’s introverted and thoughtful. The opening, suspended in time, expands towards extremes of register, growing more intense, leading to an agitated passage, imitative melodic ideas rising over sharp, pulsed figures. Time comes to a standstill again as the pair of violins wheel in duet.

One of fascinations of the piece is its expressive variety in the face of the remarkably unified musical details. The second half essentially balances the first, slow-fast: but while it’s based on much the same musical material, changes in its articulation and register transform it from an abstract, observed point of view to one somehow internalized and humanized. The still ending of the piece grows more and more gossamer, ascending and dissipating into the ether. 

Composer; Boston Symphony Orchestra Assistant Director of Program Publications, Editorial


Full Recording:

Performed by the Momenta Quartet
From the CD "Multitude, Solitude: Eric Nathan" (Albany Records)


Performed by Momenta Quartet at a live performance at le poisson rouge (New York)

View Online Score


"... sounds of the North Sea and seagulls overhead may be heard among the textures of this richly evocative piece."

- Patrick Rucker, The Washington Post
on "Multitude, Solitude" for string quartet (1.11.2015)
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"The Momenta Quartet catches all the turns of the music’s character — especially in the expansive “Multitude Solitude,” which alternates between ghostly landscapes and vigorous outbursts [...]"

- Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle (1.3.16)
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"Multitude, Solitude brought the concert to a closed circle. Like the first piece, this music begins with energy and activity before it slips into the shadow of introversion, growing quiet and silvery, with the players using harmonics and glissandos. The music is romantic and seems intensely personal, expressing powerful thoughts that he perhaps would rather not, or cannot, put into words. The musicians are going into the studio this weekend to record all the music for an Albany release in the fall of 2015. It’s already a must buy."

- George Grella, New York Classical Review (9.20.2014)
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"The term "otherworldly" comes to mind again, in the eerie opening with high glissandos and in other passages where glissandos or high, sustained pitches underlie more definite pronouncements. The first half is very slow, the last very fast–until the strangeness returns for the last several minutes. Eric Nathan is a gifted composer whose works are played here by first-rate performers."

- Barry Kilpatrick, American Record Guide
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"Multitude, Solitude," is a one-movement string quartet that explores the tension of being in crowds vs. being alone. In the course of a quarter-hour, this deeply urban score balances stasis and forward motion. Social buzz and solitude jostle inassertive ensemble gestures and tiny lyrical phrases."

- Jay Harvey, Upstage (12.24.15)
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