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. Read more
» string quartet
Despite their official numbering, the last two string quartets written by Scotland’s most brilliantly inventive composer, James Dillon, were actually composed the opposite way round to how they appear. His String Quartet No. 5 was originally begun as a gift for the Arditti Quartet, to celebrate their 30th anniversary. However, Dillon ultimately put the work aside unfinished, before returning to complete it a few years later, sending it to Irvine Arditti unannounced, now as a gift for their 35th anniversary. In the intervening period, Dillon had already completed what would subsequently be called his String Quartet No. 6. Regardless of the numbers, though, the two works have much in common, in terms of duration (each lasting around 15 minutes) as well as the type & treatment of their material. Read more
In addition to intimacy, the string quartet is a medium capable of remarkable levels of austerity. It’s no surprise, then, that John Cage turned to the quartet as the vehicle for a work in which, “without actually using silence, I should like to praise it” (as Cage wrote to his parents, prior to starting the piece). A few years earlier, in 1947, Cage had composed his first orchestral work, The Seasons, using a technique that he described as a ‘gamut’. This involved the pre-composition of a collection of materials—chords, gestures, solitary sonic moments—that had no relation to each other. These would then become the entire repertoire for the compositional act, Cage choosing from this collection of materials as the mood took him. The gamut technique was an important step towards the aleatoric methods Cage would explore in the next stage of his output, & it’s heard with perhaps the greatest clarity in the work he wrote next, the String Quartet in Four Parts, composed in 1950. Here, Cage created a library of chords, & then a melodic line; to harmonise this melody, Cage called upon whichever chords supported the melody’s current pitch (the same chords always fixed to the same pitches). In addition to use of the gamut, the work also draws on the seasons for inspiration, being in four movements each of which is dedicated to one season. The reference to silence in the above quotation is arguably as much about motion as the actual presence or otherwise of sound itself. Indeed, the titles of the first three movements indicate a gradual tendency towards motionlessness: ‘Quietly Flowing Along’ (summer), ‘Slowly Rocking’ (autumn), ‘Nearly Stationary’ (winter). But another kind of silence evoked in the work is that of self-expression. By drastically restricting the composer’s palette to a small pool of disjunct fragments, the gamut technique to no little extent confounds most conventions of what might otherwise pass for “expression”. This is mirrored in an instruction to the players that they not only avoid vibrato but use minimal weight on the bow, resulting in a cool, detached, rather other-worldly sound, often sounding poised to evaporate. Read more
Imagine a culture in which the string quartet has no history. No Haydn, no late-Beethoven, no Bartok, no Eleanor Rigby. How would a group of four string players – why four? why not? why two violins? maybe the bass player couldn’t get up the stairs… How would a group of four string players know what to play, how to play together?
The next work featured in my Lent series is Chambre privée, a new quartet from Christopher Fox which was premièred at Huddersfield last November. It’s a piece i find interesting, but not really at all for the reasons the composer is intending. The trouble is that potentially fascinating conceit described in the programme note—or, rather, the sounds his quartet makes with regard to that conceit. Their behaviour for much of the piece is, as Fox states, “tentative”, guarded even. But not, as one might imagine, toward one another; on the contrary, the quartet immediately coalesces into a homogeneous unit articulating an extended series of soft, meticulously placed chords. Why do they act together? why are they so cautious? so restrained? so careful? The chords themselves aren’t particularly suggestive of anything, per se (although the ear makes a progression of sorts from them), yet they overwhelmingly sound sculpted, considered, not at all the product of spontaneity arising from the blank pages of non-history. Being spontaneous doesn’t necessarily connote chaos, of course, but—considering these players have supposedly nothing upon which to predicate their actions—is it really commensurate with instantaneous, long-term order? Read more
One of the greatest gifts of the string quartet is its ability to explore the most intimate of soundworlds. The second of Jörg Widmann‘s string quartets (he’s composed a series of five), subtitled the ‘Chorale Quartet’, is a striking example of this, spending much of its time at the threshold of utterance.
Widmann makes it clear in the opening moments of the piece that there is something familiar, traditional & perhaps fundamental, lurking not far beneath the surface of the music. It emerges from the halting, sporadic notes that begin the work, broken & tainted by the quartet’s hesitance & microtonal inflections. This is almost as clear as it is able to become; much of the time it can barely be perceived beneath the network of near-silent gestures from which most of the work’s fabric is made. It’s a judgement call as to whether the players are working to defeat this latent material or whether it’s defeating them, but either way, the quartet’s demeanour is an uncomfortable one. Their hesitant notes occasionally get drawn-out into long, spindly threads, coated in barely audible shivers; but when they seek to be more assertive, the result is rude blurts, needle-sharp pizzicatos, grinding accents & dull surges. About a third of the way through, the quartet appears to grow, both in terms of substance & confidence, but a potentially strong cadential moment gets caught once again, quickly reduced to fragility. Read more
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 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 –
The poem in question is ‘Dying’, composed in 1863 (see left), 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. This 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, & it’s this pattern of behaviour—quick commencements that founder; intense, rapid material becoming light & sporadic—that pervades the entire movement. At times there’s an onomatopoeic quality, the instruments overlapping & 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 & sagging, shivering, onto their final chords, go a long way to capturing the unsettling atmosphere of Dickinson’s text.
If there’s one thing practically guaranteed every year at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, it’s the presence of a string quartet that approaches the medium from a radical perspective, one that does away, almost entirely, with its traditions & connotations. The next work in my Lent series focussing on new quartets is just such a piece: Simon Steen-Andersen‘s String Quartet No. 2, given its first UK performance at HCMF 2012 by the Bozzini Quartet. It wasn’t so very long ago, writing about another recent quartet, Hans Abrahamsen’s String Quartet No. 4, that i critiqued quite harshly music that stretched its modest quota of restricted material far, far too thinly, with mind-numbing results. By contrast, Steen-Andersen demonstrates that it’s possible to confine almost every aspect of the work while maintaining high levels of invention & interest.