My Lent string quartet series continues with a most unusual work from Simon Holt. Its title, Two movements for string quartet, seems uncharacteristically abstract for Holt, but its content is rooted in the evocative imagery of Emily Dickinson’s poetry (the piece is, in fact, the second in Holt’s five-part ‘a ribbon of time’ cycle inspired by Dickinson’s work). The poem in question is ‘Dying’, composed in 1863, a sombre text made all the more troubling by Dickinson’s characteristic use of dashes, turning the text into a fraught sequence of breathless utterances.
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –
This breathless quality is brought to bear on Holt’s first movement, titled ‘Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz’. The music is drawn from an opening solo on the viola that begins rapidly but loses momentum quickly, eventually stopping. It then relaunches with the rest of the quartet, and it’s this pattern of behaviour—quick commencements that founder; intense, rapid material becoming light and sporadic—that pervades the entire movement. At times there’s an onomatopoeic quality, the instruments overlapping and nuzzling each other, creating buzz-like clashes. As it progresses, the material feels more deliberate, jutting, pointed, as though rudely carved in the air. Lumbering tuttis eventually come to dominate, but the quieter passages are more striking, particularly a curious episode halfway through, when the music falls into a slow, gentle rocking (to be echoed later). This, together with the heavy conclusion, the quartet petering out and sagging, shivering, onto their final chords, go a long way to capturing the unsettling atmosphere of Dickinson’s text.
The second movement, called ‘The Stillness in the Room’, dives even deeper into this dark mood. Again, it begins with the viola alone, lyrical but circling, as though dancing on the spot. The kind of ‘structural stuttering’ that permeated the preceding movement makes its presence felt here too; there’s a miniature explosion that grows to majestic size only to be instantly reduced, the quartet falling into an assertive but laboured sequence and thence to an achingly thin texture that dissolves completely. Despite their hesitancy, the quartet becomes earnest, there’s a sense of going somewhere—but then Holt plunges them into another static episode, the rocking motion now rendered even more oblique; it’s actually rather sinister, as though the players were locked in place. For some time afterwards the music seems uncertain, even through a subsequent violin melody that’s so over-expressive it sounds almost wild. But the uncertainty finally undoes the quartet; they hesitate, falter, a rogue cello accent triggering a coda filled with flimsy tendrils of disconsolate melody, closing in supernatural fashion with a ghostly pair of chords and a distant col legno strike.
Despite the non-descript title, Holt packs the Two movements with a huge amount of emotional baggage and subtext. This vivid performance, part of a composer portrait concert during 2008 Proms season, was given by the Tippett Quartet.