Forty Years of the Arditti Quartet

Monday 28 April 2014

We are now living in a post-Arditti age of composition. Future generations of musicologists will refer to a school of composers which emerged around the turn of the century with aesthetic and technical values attuned to the Arditti Quartet’s strengths.

I spent Saturday in that new theatre at the Barbican, taking in three concerts given by the quartet to commemorate their 40th anniversary. The fifteen pieces played ranged from the first piece written for them (Jonathan Harvey’s first string quartet) to three world premieres, with an emphasis on music from the past 20 years. Each concert ended with one of the signature pieces from their repertoire: Helmut Lachenmann’s Grido, Ligeti’s Second Quartet and Xenakis’ Tetras.

It’s almost facetious to say that these last pieces stood out way above much of the rest of the programme, but that’s what pretty much everyone felt, myself included. I’m more interested in why we felt that way.

The Arditti Quartet has brought exceptional virtuosity to chamber music and commissioned hundreds of works. They’ve opened up seemingly limitless possibilities, giving composers the impression that anything is possible. The effect has been similar in many respects to the recent explosion in the capability and accessibility of computerised sound processing. The end result is kind of the same, too: a large, glittering body of work somewhat lacking in substance, and strangely homogeneous in the way each new composer is eager to try out as many of the same set of cool new tricks as possible. The assimilation of spectralism into intonation, microtones as colouration, rapid passages of leaps and glissandi, scratch tones, were all combined into a general ethos of respectable expressionism and assigned various weightings in the pieces by Hector Parra, Georg Friedrich Haas, Hilda Paredes, Pascal Dusapin and Toshio Hosokawa. Similar manifestations of this style could be heard at Huddersfield last year in quartets by composers ranging from Alberto Posadas to John Zorn.

The aspects that stood out in the old-ish classics on the programme were not simply quality, but contrast. The new work by Hilda Paredes would have sounded more striking had it not been bookended by Parra and Haas. The Harrison Birtwistle premiere was an occasional piece but distinctive in its refusal to add gestural ornament to its substance. The remaining premiere, James Clarke’s Third Quartet, was only five minutes long but a tour de force of concision, putting technique at the service of a sculptural intensity lacking in so many of the other works. The mixing of contrast and flow echoed the presence of the Ligeti movements heard in the same concert. The exploitation of dynamics as musical material was one of the more obvious examples of techniques used for the sake of music, not just musicianship.

I was going to end this post by quoting an anecdote involving Arditti and Alvin Lucier, but I just googled for it and holy poo get a load of this:

The string quartet was the university computer-music-studio of the 1940s and 1950s… It is a characteristic of the string quartet to emphasize moving the bow back and forth. The more the better.

Insert: Mr. Arditti, of string quartet fame, complained to Alvin Lucier, in the presence of a large number of people, that he didn’t like to play Alvin’s String Quartet, because there was very little bow movement, which lack of bow movement made his arm tired. To which Alvin replied, “Why don’t you play it with the other arm?”

This is from a lecture by the late Robert Ashley, who of course had this all sussed out long ago. Go read that whole blog post.

James Saunders, live and on record

Thursday 24 April 2014

In my last post a month ago(!) I was navel-gazing over the musical conversation going on in London. It’s occurred to me that I’ve been taking for granted how many interesting composers are working in the UK these days. Just recently I read Daniel Wolf’s post about the two streams in British composition now and it’s nice to know my opinion isn’t pure parochialism.

Wolf’s mostly discussing the “complexity” school in his post, but it’s interesting to see that the “experimental tradition” is still thriving, too. I got this bee in my bonnet about how what is usually considered “experimental” in music is the stuff that approaches music as art, more than as craft, so I’ve been pleased to find more than just a scattering of a few, lone voices in the British scene.

That sense of “scene” is helped through supportive musicians and other organisations, like the record label Another Timbre. A couple of weeks ago I saw Ensemble Plus-Minus perform a concert of pieces by James Saunders. The music draws from a variety of influencing sources: group behaviour and home-made materials à la the Scratch Orchestra, a focus on process and structure that emerged with conceptual art, minimalism, controlled improvisation, the austerity of materials used in the Wandelweiser group. Group behaviour was the organising principle for several works: titles like everyone doing what everyone else is doing and everybody do this pretty much sum up how the musicians interact in the respective pieces. The music is composed through the arrangement of these interactions, leaving the sounds themselves to the discretion of the performers, using both instruments and found objects.

At times the music teetered on the edge of being little more than a technical exercise, albeit an entertaining one. Much conventional music also takes this risk, with much less interesting results. You start to wonder if a recording of the music would be less appealing because of the lack of the theatrical element, or more appealing because the structural means are a distraction from the musical ends.

Luckily for me, just after the concert I got sent a nice swag of CDs by Another Timbre for reviewing or whatever. One of them is Saunders’ disc divisions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole. The musical material here is much more spare, with much fewer musicians involved than in the Plus-Minus gig. Two duets, three solos, a trio, and a work “for 10 players with coffee cups on various surfaces”. Without visuals, the music is separated from concerns about technical exercises and deals with subtle distinctions in sound. Much of the disc is very quiet, and the sounds often have an ambiguous character to them, fragile and unstable. When just listening, you realise that the substance is obscured as equally as the technique: a harp is prepared with objects and bowed, radio static merges with the soft rasping of a bowed wood block.

These finely nuanced results are very different from the deceptively straightforward compositional strategies that produce them. As with a good piece of the New Complexity school, the music is both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying.