A couple of summers ago, the Beloved and i could be found on a small boat offshore from the idyllic town of Portree, on the east coast of the Isle of Skye. Taking in caves and sea eagles, we sailed along the edge of the smaller island of Raasay, a sparsely-populated but beautiful sliver of land nestling between Skye and the Scottish mainland. This remote place was home to Harrison Birtwistle during part of the 1970s and ’80s, and is central to the last string quartet i’m featuring in this year’s Lent series, his Tree of Strings, composed in 2007. The title originates in a poem written by another Raasay resident, the renowned Hebridean poet Sorley Maclean (whose work i highly recommend), and the piece seeks to tap into both subjective memories and objective history of Raasay, a place that, despite its diminutive size, saw its fair share of drama, both with respect to the Jacobite conflict as well as piracy.
Although material, particularly melodic material, is often significant and obvious in Birtwistle’s work, in Tree of Strings the emphasis seems emphatically shifted in favour of atmosphere and evocation. The piece is book-ended by episodes that are simultaneously firm but faltering, articulating on and around a single pitch at the start, closing with rude, irregular, blunt blurts at the end. This divided tone—aggressive yet hesitant—is a feature of the work as a whole, but finds a counterpoint at various stages by not so much a melody as a melodic assertion. In other words, the melodic identity of the work is kept somewhat obfuscated, avoiding clear definition, but that only makes it all the more powerfully allusive. There are times when despite its uncertain character it dominates the music, holding it in a dreamy, ‘suspended’ state; elsewhere it contrasts with spiky passages to make them a kind of “bed of nails” accompaniment. All of the work’s elements prove fallible, however, and soaring melodic tuttis undergo immense collapse, while rhythmic momentum seems wrong-footed and hard to maintain, seemingly afraid of tripping over itself. But there’s a bigger dichotomy evident in Tree of Strings, and it only gradually becomes apparent; Birtwistle injects real energy and ferocity into the music, but again and again one espies what seems to be an eternally becalmed fundamental layer, untouched and untroubled by the relentless machinations playing out upon its surface. Perhaps here is something of the quiet, eternal peacefulness of Raasay itself. There’s certainly more grace and stability in these fleeting glimpses than in any of the episodes of frantic activity in the foreground; the fact Birtwistle ends them all in such grumpy, peremptory fashion—with grunting percussive ‘full stops’—suggests we should be looking most closely at what lies beneath.
This performance was given by the Arditti Quartet at the 2008 Aldeburgh Festival.
The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.