A couple of summers ago, the Beloved & 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 & sea eagles, we sailed along the edge of the smaller island of Raasay, a sparsely-populated but beautiful sliver of land nestling between Skye & the Scottish mainland. This remote place was home to Harrison Birtwistle during part of the 1970s & ’80s, & 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), & the piece seeks to tap into both subjective memories & 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 & obvious in Birtwistle’s work, in Tree of Strings the emphasis seems emphatically shifted in favour of atmosphere & evocation. The piece is book-ended by episodes that are simultaneously firm but faltering, articulating on & 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, & soaring melodic tuttis undergo immense collapse, while rhythmic momentum seems wrong-footed & hard to maintain, seemingly afraid of tripping over itself. But there’s a bigger dichotomy evident in Tree of Strings, & it only gradually becomes apparent; Birtwistle injects real energy & ferocity into the music, but again & again one espies what seems to be an eternally becalmed fundamental layer, untouched & 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 & 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.