Turning one’s attention to the second work of Pascal Dusapin‘s to be featured at this year’s Proms, superficial similarities to the last première, Sally Beamish’s Reed Stanzas, immediately present themselves. This, too, is a piece for string quartet (Dusapin’s String Quartet No. 6), although extensively augmented and amplified by the presence of a small orchestra (on this occasion, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, directed by Thierry Fischer). Dusapin’s work also bears two titles, the first of which, Hinterland, suggests a similar kind of remote landscape to that explored in Beamish’s piece. The second title, in Dusapin’s trademark pithy fashion, is the single Greek word Hapax, a word perhaps better known in English through the linguistic term hapax legomenon, referring to the rare phenomenon of a word or construction that appears just once in a particular language. Dusapin rather indifferently claims to have used the word ‘Hapax’ simply because “It is […] highly unlikely that I will ever write another quartet with orchestra”, but one can’t help feeling there’s more to it than that. Due to the nature of hapax legomena, they are notoriously difficult to make sense of, and as Dusapin’s work progresses, it’s a parallel that seems increasingly apt.
On the one hand, this is certainly not a piece lacking clarity. The quartet serves to initiate material (delivered in predictably superb fashion by the still incomparable Arditti Quartet), which is then by turns radiated, resonated, expanded, elaborated and projectile vomited by the orchestra. Harmonically, too, the work is relatively straightforward, much of the time fixating on certain pitches and oscillating around them, establishing what sound almost like floating pedal points. The pervading emphasis on rhythm is an additional aid to clarity, and keeps the material light, essential if Dusapin is to ensure the quartet can be heard in the midst of a throng that could so easily overwhelm them.
But all this transparent directness goes precisely nowhere in terms of helping one decipher what Dusapin is on about—if anything, it does the reverse, exaggerating the respective roles of quartet and orchestra. So we hear a quartet that sounds less like a homogeneous unit than a cluster of disparate individuals connected only by their mutual suffering from OCD. They shiver, they stutter, they spasm; sometimes they launch into half-baked attempts at lyricism, ideas that begin briskly but in no time collapse into circular arguments, all the while feeling pinned in place (akin to the ludicrous, imagined ‘ride through the air’ from Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote). The quartet becomes a lucid paradigm of abject anxiety, garrulously fretting and fussing in an apparently endless stream that seems to seek shelter in minimalistic passages focussing on a single note, drummed out ad absurdum, like a deranged man beating his hand on a table.
Placed in a supporting role, the orchestra cannot distance itself from this manic behaviour, and while they spend most of their time in the periphery, when called into action they only heighten the madness. Upper notes cause the clarinets to bicker, and the flutes to spit; the strings seem to want to slow things down, or at least draw them out for a bit, in the process coming across less like a ‘voice of reason’ than an attempt to stop a runaway train with a mattress. They end up glowering ridiculously (especially when the tam-tam gets involved), the basses becoming pointlessly ponderous in the depths. No, nothing can intervene in the quartet’s convulsive stream of consciousness; if only they betrayed some symptoms of Tourette syndrome, they might become interesting. But they don’t, and the impossible number of notes they ejaculate are nothing more than empty noise and hollow gestures, unhinged blurts and bellows that leave one ultimately wanting to give all concerned a hefty slap.
As a listener, one feels inclined to treat Hapax‘s literal meaning as advice: ‘once’.