Black Box BBM1079
String Quartet no.1
(“Between the National and the Bristol”)
The first string quartet was commissioned by the Vienna Festival for the Arditti Quartet to perform in October 1985.
Until then I had never considered writing a quartet partly because, although a string player myself, as a bassist I found myself outside the quasi-privacy of such an ensemble. However, as a way of ingratiating myself into this closed world I introduced aspects of the double bass into the piece. The passage with cello and viola playing heavily in octaves in the bottom register, for example, simulates the sound of the bass, and extended solos in natural harmonics, such as those in the coda, are part of the bass’s technique. In fact a great deal of the music is in the high register, most notably towards the end where each instrument de-tunes a pair of strings and thereafter plays only in harmonics, both natural and artificial. The first violin and viola tune their top two strings down a semitone, and the second violin and cello tune their bottom two strings down a semitone. The original idea was that natural harmonics would be played on the “artificial” (i.e. de-tuned) strings and artificial harmonics on the “natural” strings.
My knowledge of the players in the Arditti Quartet of that period informed some aspects of the writing in a slightly capricious way. For example, I was least familiar with the playing of Levine Andrade and so I made sure that he, the violist, had the most interesting part at the opening, and several solos throughout. Irvine Arditti’s reputation as a phenomenal sight-reader led me to have the first violin’s part on the first page of the score almost entirely in open G string semibreves. The first moment of ‘romantic’ warmth was given to Alex Balanescu, at that time second violin in the quartet, and Rohan de Saram’s cello was placed in a very high register for the first few minutes.
When I started to write the piece, my initial idea had been to write a quartet in which each instrument would relate to a composer associated with it as a player, the whole quartet serving as a kind of imaginary séance bringing them together. In this scenario the composers were Ysayë, Vieuxtemps, Hindemith (or Kupkovic), and Schönberg. In the event, due to the need to accelerate delivery of the score to coincide with the Arditti’s passing through Heathrow, there was only time to allude to Ysayë, as composer, violinist, quartet leader and to his connection with Busoni – his occasional accompanist and butt of one of Ysayë’s best practical jokes, in the Queen’s Hotel Birmingham.
The Quartet’s subtitle brings together another reference to a hotel and to Vienna. During the time that I was working with Robert Wilson on The CIVIL WarS I undertook research into the life of Mata Hari in order to find text for an aria. One night in 1906, unknown to each of them, the three most famous dancers of the period were staying in Vienna. Maud Allan was at the National, Mata Hari was at the Hotel Bristol, and Isadora Duncan, another reference within the quartet, was staying in a hotel “somewhere between the National and the Bristol”.
The piece is dedicated to my sister, Hazel Davies, who died during the time I was revising the piece and, at the suggestion of Alex Balanescu, adding a few bars to the already difficult coda.
String Quartet no.2
The second string quartet was written in 1990 commissioned by the Huddersfield Festival and the Balanescu Quartet.
By then I had worked with Alex Balanescu a good deal and had come to know members of the quartet personally. At that time the quartet had an interesting international mix of players: Rumanian first violin, American second, English viola and Scottish cello and there are passages which reflect that personal acquaintance, for example the quasi-Scottish lament played at the end by the cello answered by the first violin (Scotland 1 Rumania 1, rewriting football history). At the same time there were devices that I tried in an experimental way, such as the use of the ‘bottleneck’ to produce an extreme form of portamento to an extended cello melody (playing in unison with the viola) in an extremely high register giving an effect not unlike the sound of the Onde Martinot.
There are moments in this quartet unlike anything else I have written, the very fast section for example in which the ensemble play pulsing chords at very high speed and then, little by little, melodies emerge as chords which have previously been played by single notes on the four stringed instruments are changed to double stops thereby freeing individual instruments to play melodic phrases.
In a way the second quartet begins where the first quartet ends – with harmonics, though here only artificial ones and with normal tuning – rather like the second episode of a television series (“Previously on Twin Peaks…..”). The second quartet is a more relaxed, easy-going piece than the first being less referential and paying closer attention to the ways in which this particular combination of strings can cohere in the diverse pairing of instruments, the use of solo versus accompaniment in surprising ways, in the contrasts between homogeneity and heterogeneity.
String Quartet no.3
Apart from the 10 5-minute string quartets that I wrote in 1992 as the original version of A Man in a Room, Gambling, where they accompany Juan Muñoz’s speaking voice and are therefore not åpure’ quartets, there are 8 years between my second and third quartets (there were only 4 years between the first and second). The third quartet alludes to a number of approaches to chamber music that I have touched on in those intervening years.
Among these is the section at the end of my Cello Concerto where the solo cello is accompanied only by 3 solo instruments (2 violins and a viola) as a reference to the concerto’s connection with the music of Haydn, the åfather’ of the string quartet. Although, in an academic sense, this reference may appear classical, in the concerto its musical effect is elegiac and even austere coming as it does at the end of long orchestral work. Shortly before the closing section of this quartet, therefore, I use an equivalent sequence of suspensions and resolutions but this time using only two instruments and, unlike in the concerto, the accompanying instruments – and the solo lines – do not remain the same throughout the passage.
Another element which finds its way into the quartet comes from my work with groups from the world of early music, particularly from the experience of writing for a consort of viols, a precursor of the string quartet, and for homogeneous vocal ensembles (the brief allusion to Gesualdo in this piece stems from the “apt for voices or viols” principle which found its way into the world of the madrigal). In several places I ask for little or no vibrato from the strings, occasionally preferring open strings and natural harmonics to stopped notes. In addition there are sections where I concentrate on the purer intervals. This self-imposed constraint is present throughout the work – in one section I only use major harmonies and in another only minor, for example.
Although I use the term åsection’ in these notes, in fact the piece is in one continuous movement, played without a break.
I have known the members of the Lyric Quartet for a number of years both personally and professionally and I admire their work both as a quartet and as individual players. My third string quartet is dedicated to the Lyric Quartet and was commissioned by them with funds made available by South West Arts.
Jonathan Carney - violin
Edmung Coxon - violin
Nick Barr - viola
David Daniels - cello
2. String Quartet No. 2
3. String Quartet No. 3