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A Few Good Notes

Benjamin Franklin inspires a composition contest.

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I thought about writing this article with only 16 letters. Then I realized that would take way too much effort. And that's why I'm in awe of the challenge put to composers by Richmond's Oberon Quartet.

Last year the group created a contest with a catch: Composers could use only 16 notes. They had to follow the tuning model of a string quartet attributed to Benjamin Franklin, in which he directs musicians to retune their instruments and use only open strings.

Seventeen compositions from around the world arrived on Oberon Quartet's music stands. Molly Sharp, violist with the group, said the members played all the pieces and considered how the composers took advantage of the constraints to create truly original works that were 5 minutes long or shorter. Composers were allowed to use special notes called harmonics, which opened up the sonic palette a little.

Because of the unusual tuning, the musicians had to commit one set of instruments to this contest. One part's tuning is so far from the standard that the first violinist kept breaking strings until she restrung her violin, putting the wrong strings in the wrong places.

Eventually, the Oberon Quartet chose five finalists. Sharp describes one of the works as a hybrid of minimalism, another as lyrical and romantic, and a third as containing "some funky ninth chords."

The group will perform a movement of Franklin's quartet Tuesday, Feb. 26, followed by the five new works. Audience members will vote on a favorite finalist, and the winning composer will receive $500. The concert is free, with the contest funded by St. Catherine's School, where the quartet is in residence.

The Oberon Quartet performs Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 7:30 p.m. in Bannard Chapel at St. Catherine's School, 6001 Grove Ave. Free. 288-2804.

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