[Up front disclaimer: I've known Stirling Newberry for nearly ten years of internet discussion and arguement. It's impossible for me to hear his music without my experience of him affecting my perceptions, and I wouldn't want to hear it that way.]
Political activism and music are among the passions/obsessions of Stirling Newberry's life. These obsessions come together in the two string quartets recorded on In The Year of Storms.
The two quartets on this disc, (No. 7 in Eb, Op. 35, and No. 8 in B, Op. 36) were written in response to the storm season of 2005 and its aftermath, both political and human. A combination of grief, anger, and longing suffuse the music of both quartets.
Mr. Newberry's music is tonal/modal in both forward and backwards senses. The works are governed by large-scale harmonic and melodic ideas while at the same time there is often a hint (or more) of the minimalist project underlying the surface. And it's a compelling surface. Mr. Newberry's melodies are memorable enough to carry the musical weight they are given in these pieces, though they aren't tunes you'll whistle afterwards (for the most part). His admiration (obsession, really) for Beethoven is reflected in his melodies, which are almost always ripe for contrapuntal treatment.
The composer's brand of post-modernism comes out in his stylistic references. The opening of the first movement of Quartet 7, for example, recalls the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth and a later movement includes the Dies Irae as a theme. Mr. Newberry is also fluent in many popular styles of the past and present and deploys them with ease.
I can recommend this disc without serious reservation. It brings up important issues about the nature of performance (and what constitutes a musical work) and the distribution of concert music, which I will discuss later.