Catherine Lamb: divisio spiralis

Sunday 23 April 2023

After blowing off going to gigs all year I actually made it all the way to Wigmore Hall to hear the JACK Quartet play Catherine Lamb’s divisio spiralis, composed for them in 2019. It’s a long work, just about ninety minutes, punctuated by pauses. The string quartet play with amplification but no other types of electronic processing that Lamb has often used to augment the harmonic space of her music. The quartet plays in just intonation, gradually opening out from a narrow band of frequencies in the higher range, introducing more readily discernible melodic fragments before slowly sinking to the lower depths of their instruments. The melodies and chord changes are plaintive and cadential, particularly as they only briefly rise before gradually tending downwards. The JACK Quartet played this with stoic bravura, using thinned-out, vibratoless tones that nevertheless filled out the sounds with the harmonic spectrum Lamb would have hoped for, with clear ringing pitches, beatings and other (psycho)acoustic phenomena quietly present throughout. Besides its length, it’s a difficult and conflicted work, in which system and sentiment share an uneasy cohabitation. In the moments it evokes rarefied folk music, it renders the surrounding sections indistinct, and never quite balances its apparent wish to be both demonstrative and impassive. This creates a curious state in the listener where you’re never quite certain what you’re hearing at any given moment; you have to keep your ears open and note the strengths and vulnerabilities as you find them. That’s an admirable achievement in itself, but her more recent string duet I heard at Cafe Oto last year resolved these elements into a stronger and more coherent work.