As its title declares, composer Robert Honstein’s Middle Ground (2016) for amplified violin and electronics seeks to find the mean between the string instrument’s extremes of pitch and tonality. Honstein chooses a tripartite scheme of three movements that lays out his program with an unmistakable clarity: starting with the violin’s upper register, the piece jumps to the low end of its compass before settling into the range in between. The overall result is a deft, composite portrait of a string instrument.
The first movement, titled Too Far, is made up of softly played upper register long tones and harmonics drifting upward and downward, as if carried along on warm air currents. The second movement is Too Close, and exchanges the ethereality of the first for grinding, predominantly lower-register sixteenth notes played over changing time signatures as they race toward an electronically-distorted finish. The final movement is Bridging the Gap, which returns to low dynamics and long tones, now alternating between high and low registers and growing gradually less distant from each other until they converge on a terminal two-note chord.
The composition’s structural clarity is brought out not only in its division into three movements logically determined by its programmatic character, but by the simple melodic material Honstein uses for each. Rather than spinning out linear melodies, Honstein in the first two movements arranges notes into fields; in the third movement he breaks up the fields into points moving against each other. Although the piece is fairly sparse its textures are smoothed over by the electronics’ augmentation of the sound with delay and reverb, bolstering its presence and frequently giving the impression of multiple violins playing a closely-spaced canon. Violinist Kate Stenberg’s performance is by turns serene and urgent, giving the composition the emotionally controlled performance it demands.