Preamble to a Post: Studying the Arditti Quartet

Any string quartet that performs contemporary music today has listened to and admired the aesthetic rigor, musical commitment and amazing longevity of the Arditti Quartet.  I know there are others who - like me - have been listening to the Ardittis since childhood.  So, when I finally saw them live in 2012 - as opposed to years of listening to studio recordings - at the Darmstadt Summer Courses, it was a revelation to see their raw energy and the clarity of their interpretation of an incredibly difficult work.

The piece of which I speak is Brian Ferneyhough's String Quartet No. 6, a stylistic and instrumental triumph that I am continually intrigued by as a listener.  I had heard it once in recorded form, but seeing them perform live with absolute precision in microtonal unisons and complex rhythms made the music come to life through their virtuosity.  But even more, it was not just technically sound and true to the page: they had command of colors within a distinctive quartet sound that's all their own.

I've been intrigued with Ferneyhough's music from my vantage-point as a performer for years, and finally got to tackle some with Spektral this fall when we played his Adagissimo on a few concerts.  I've already had thoughts about that piece, but since I keep ruminating on the Sixth Quartet (and that Darmstadt performance) I'm planning to undertake a study of the wealth of materials available online about the Arditti Quartet's approach to the work.

So, I share those links with you intrepid new music listeners/performers/composers with the hope you'll discuss the results of my studies in a week or so.

In the meantime, here's video of the Arditti Quartet giving the work its world premiere, two years before I saw them play it in Darmstadt.  Even at this early stage in their interpretation you can see their unity of vision and cooly collected communication in the face of stern challenges.


Expressions of Carter Over Time


As a freshman in high school, I signed up for an email listserv focusing on 20th century music. Being from a small college town in Indiana, I hadn't had much exposure to classical music written after the Rite of Spring.  At this point in my life, I hadn't even really considered the possibility of playing the violin professionally.  In fact, my sentiments as recently as a year before would have led me to prefer prioritizing my spot on the wrestling team over playing a note on the violin ever again.

But, around my fifteenth birthday I began discovering music again, and finding that that the weirder it was the more I wanted to hear it.  I wanted more than just to know about it, I wanted to "get it".  This listserv proved pivotal in my musical development, even if I only followed it for a month and they never discussed much of what I now consider to be truly avante-garde.  

A message discussing a disc of Boulez conducting Varese piqued my interest.  Who was this Varese guy?  However, I quickly found that the headliner of the disc (as far as my project to digest wildly new musical styles was concerned) was clearly the "Symphony of Three Orchestras" by Elliott Carter.

From the devastating Hart Crane quote in the liner notes to the sheer volume of musical ideas bursting from this piece, I knew I had found something I truly did not understand.  But, it was a revelation.  In not understanding, I saw a vast landscape of music in front of me, shrouded in fog.  I couldn't even begin to know where the horizon was.  

It was exhilarating to have this work take over my world so completely, with its impossibly expressive lines interacting in ways that never ceased to amaze.  Listening to the piece again now, I feel lucky to have found it when I did.  Just months later, when my private instructor planted the seed of working to be a professional violinist in my mind, visions of playing new and exciting music inspired me to take on the challenge.

To this day my perceptions of musical expression and time are being influenced and changed by Carter's infinitely subtle and sensitive art.  In fact, as this blog post goes live, I will be rehearsing the fourth movement of his Second String Quartet with my mates in Spektral Quartet.  Every rehearsal reveals the lines more clearly, hearing how they interact and converse in the most organic, yet unexpected, ways.

Just yesterday, as I walked out of a rehearsal of the quartet, my facebook feed was filled with memorials to Carter and his work.  I can think of no more fitting way to find out of his passing than from my peers.  His music will be a constant in our lives, an unavoidable pillar of the American canon.  I know my story is far from special - many of us were introduced to the deep questioning and probing expression of great new music through Elliott Carter's work.

Canon Fodder: Thomalla's Albumblatt

Hans Thomalla: Albumblatt (2010) -

Hans Thomalla was born in Bonn, Germany in 1975, he currently lives in Evanston, IL and teaches at Northwestern University.

First performance: 7/22/10.  Written for the Arditti Quartet, commissioned by the Ernst von Siemens Foundation.

If you're looking for more, check out this video of Hans' opera, Fremd.

The lights turn on abruptly at the start of Hans Thomalla's Albumblatt. You are standing in an empty white room. Whether or not there is a floor is unimportant. You are not grounded by gravity or time. Strands of sound, shape and thought move past you, or is it the remnants of light swirling on the inside of your eyelids?

These strands float and whiz past, each with its own density and following its own arc. Occasionally, they coalesce into a fragment of a memory, the faded photograph of a past life. Memory, charged with the nostalgic beauty, but still fleeting.

I hope to offer you those few thoughts as a way of setting a mood for contemplative listening to this truly arresting piece. Hans has said the rest better than I ever could:

We know albums – or Poesiealbum, as they are called in German – from our childhood: the collection of entries from friends or family as an attempt to hold onto something ephemeral: seemingly inseparable friendship, a notable experience, a song or a poem that should not be forgotten; all of those stand next to leaves that have dried long ago, and whose decomposition lets us experience vanity rather than durability.

My composition Albumblatt is a study about these tries to get a hold of such unsteady phenomena: the players’ fingers slide in almost uninterrupted glissando across the fingerboard at the beginning of the piece, while bow-pressure and bow-tempo swell constantly. A restless sonorous flow, continuously changing its direction, and in which chords shine through only in passing – just long enough to be perceived before the notes drift on: short moments of orientation, memory, meaning.

A steady decrease in bow- as well as in glissando-tempo (up to their eventual halt) attempts to grip these chords, to literally hold on to them. But instead of a stable and fixated harmony a different type of sonorous world emerges, one that follows its own flow and eventually its own elusiveness. The grasp for the chords, the attempt to get a hold of those gestures, becomes a fleeting gesture itself.

Albumblatt is dedicated to the Arditti Quartet

Hans Thomalla, 2011

Canon Fodder: Haas 2

Georg Friedrich Haas: String Quartet No. 2 (1998)

Haas was born in Graz, Austria in 1953. His childhood was spent in the mountains along the Swiss border and he currently lives and works in Basel, Switzerland.
The Second Quartet was commissioned by the Wiener Konzerthaus for the Hagen Quartet.
My other favorites (not for string quartet) by this composer are In Vain and …und…

The Second String Quartet of G.F. Haas opens in the bedrock. The cello's open C string anchors the entire opening four minutes of the piece. We know where we are, and where we have been.

However, atop this seemingly impervious rock, minerals are interacting and tectonic plates are slowing grinding. The rest of the quartet traverses the complex, high overtones of the cello's C. The harmonies are full of potential energies and unexpected geodes.

Then, at 4:19 the cello crushes its sound, as if a sudden schism has opened in the earth. This violent change leaves a gulf in the musical space and our eyes cast downward. Around 7 minutes in, the quartet begins a series of plummeting glissandi. Arriving on an A-flat that is seething with white hot energy - full of clashing flows of lava - a crack in the surface of this inner-chamber of the earth opens and we can see the shimmer of a beautiful light.

Just as quickly, it closes, and we are left with a mystery. What will this moment of beauty bring us? As the music re-awakens after this scene in the depths, we realize that we couldn't have possibly been there. It was just a dream. But, the surface of the earth begins to rumble, something is forcing its way upward.

As the second part of the piece (as I've linked it) begins, we don't even believe what we've seen. But, as the energy builds to the point of bursting the earth wide open, what should begin to spout from the ground but the very sparkling, flowing lava of our dreams. (4:10 in the second video)

Time opens up. These unknowable geological forces are building something we've never seen before, full of natural beauty and covered with a sheen unlike any mineral we've known. At 5:30 this eruption creates the most beautiful towering cliff. Soaring into the sky, it needs not reveal itself with might and bombast, but simply announces its presence and rises heavenward.

By seven minutes into the second video, it has reached its full form, but we've seen something more than just a monument to the earth's creative powers. Looking up, we see the sky for the first time, and everything we've just witnessed is put into scale. Simply a speck in the cosmos, we look up it this mountain which reaches toward the stars and slip back into sleep.


Canon Fodder: Adagissimo

Brian Ferneyhough: Adagissimo (1983)

  • Brian Ferneyhough was born in Coventry, England in 1943. He currently teaches at Stanford University.
  • Adagissimo was written for the Arditti Quartet.
  • My other favorites by this composer are Terrain and La Chute d'Icare.


Brian Ferneyhough has gained a reputation for being a composer of hard music: hard to play and listen to. This piece, while certainly not easy for the performers, is a great in-road to his style due to its extreme brevity. Give it a chance, you'll only need two minutes.

The broad brushstrokes of his pen remind me of an early painting by Jackson Pollock that I love. It's full of emotional depth, but bursting with flourish, energy and wild virtuosity. Oddly, I even think of a short story by David Foster Wallace. Like Wallace, Ferneyhough has a masterful command of his technique, and is teeming with material to work with, but there's also a deeply soulful underpinning to the music.

The violins splash colors as the work opens, revealing the dolorous music of the viola and cello below. The lower voices lay it on thick with dark browns and dirty navy blues while the violins sparkle in golden threads.

If you're interested in more of the technicalities, the YouTube notes provide information from the composer.

Canon Fodder: Hyla 4

[dropcap_1]W[/dropcap_1]elcome to the 2nd edition of Canon Fodder, a series dedicated to presenting string quartets that deserve to be heard.  Lee Hyla is a close friend of quartet, and he's got a new piece in the pipeline for us.  Hope you like our old favorite by him, with video from our recent performance -Austin

Lee Hyla: String Quartet #4 (1999) -

Lee Hyla was born in Niagara Falls in 1952, he currently lives in Chicago, IL and teaches at Northwestern University.

First performance: 9/23/99 at University of Mass. Amherst.  Written for the Lydian String Quartet, commissioned by New England Presenters

My other favorites by Lee are We Speak Etruscan and Pre-Pulse Suspended.



As a second part to this series on contemporary works for string quartet, I thought I'd continue with another Spektral favorite.  I think you'll see from the video below that this piece takes full advantage of the expressive and virtuosic possibilities from each chair of the quartet.
Keep an ear open for those spots where Lee has the quartet playing in different tempos.  Particularly at 1:53 you can hear that transition from "together" to "apart" as the cello picks up its own faster tempo, as well as the large section in duos (cello/vln. 2 and vla/vln 1) starting at 3:34.  The conversation happens from so many angles, pairs, and tones of voice from each instrument throughout the piece!
Lee's music is a continual joy for me to listen to and perform because of its integrity to his own personal voice (he reminds me of the musical equivalent of Lenny Bruce).  His combination of disparate musical impulses into a coherent language that's immediately "Lee's Music" would make Stravinsky or Beethoven giggle.

Canon Fodder: Dig Absolutely

[dropcap_1]W[/dropcap_1]elcome to the first of my Canon Fodder, a series dedicated to presenting string quartets that deserve to be heard.  I thought I'd start with a personal and Spektral favorite, accompanied by a brand spankin' new video by us.  I will be featuring a new quartet each week, and I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.   -Austin

Christopher Fisher-Lochhead: Dig Absolutely (2010)  -

Chris was born in Lewiston, ME in 1984 and currently lives in Chicago, IL where he is pursuing a Doctoral degree in Composition at Northwestern University.

"Dig Absolutely" is dedicated to Laurel Borden and was premiered at the Manhattan School of Music on Feb. 6, 2011.

My other favorite pieces by Chris were written for me, of course! I love his string writing and think his solo violin pieces "water(l)ily" and the piece I'm premiering next month, "Belles Letteres" are fantastic.  Also, "Gouache: 'Runcible Spoon" is almost as fun to play as "Dig".

The opening of "Dig" spins out a twisting line of music that weaves between the upper three voices of the quartet.  The patience of this piece as it waits to burst the initial bubble of energy is quite remarkable.  When Russ enters just after the 2:00 mark all the energy flies into the air, fragmented but not fully released.

In this heightened realm of expression where we land - floating above the earthy, gritty gestures of the opening - there is a sense wonder at the sounds a string quartet can make.  Harmonics build upon each other and swish by like insects.

By 3:20 all the angst of the opening has been filtered out by the air of this fragile nocturnal region.  The journey from the dense forest of rhythmic counterpoint and metric instability at the beginning to this place of rest is one worth taking more than once.

From this point, the unification of this newfound metric stability with the sighing and expressive gestures of the opening builds up to the climactic moment the opening's energy was begging for.  But, afterward…why is Doyle left alone, journeying through the terrain of fragile harmonics by himself?  A fascinating short story.