Why You Need to Listen to String Quartets More

I have almost religious feelings about the string quartet, and I don’t say that flippantly. I can’t quite recall how this came to be, but it was either in my late teens or early 20s, and it had to do with a composer called Béla Bartók. I was a music student, and I had a portable CD player—an expensive purchase for me at the time—which had the crucial non-skip feature (using a memory buffer; that may invoke a little nostalgia for those of you who are my age). Among my treasured memories is endlessly waiting for buses and walking around town listening to the six Bartók quartets, over and over. Among the many feelings it evoked was a sense of “how far must I climb this ladder to be even a fraction of the distance towards this?” For a composer, Bartók’s quartets are delightful but intimidating. I often think of a composer’s development like learning to loosen the tongue, as if one’s own internal barriers and blockages are all that are in the way of utterly free expression, and old Bartók was, to my ears, completely unencumbered in all the best ways. I know now that’s not all there is to it, and in fact Bartók was quite a calculating composer. Still, hearing music that sounds free had a lasting effect. Here’s one of his, to give you a sense of that:

Bartók, 2nd quartet, movement 2

1. String quartets are historical and contemporary all at once

At the same time, I was learning what the string quartet means. How it’s rooted in European tradition, and how for an Australian composer that is surprisingly confusing. I was coming to understand that it is a time-spanning entity, with its roots all the way back to Haydn or earlier, yet still one of the world’s most important ensembles—though it has European baggage it has grown well beyond being merely historical and European. Composers still love this group. It’s vital, vivacious, fertile and new-sounding in spite of it’s ancient roots. Here is a relatively recent work, titled Strum, by Jessie Montgomery, which to my ears sounds exuberant and fresh, as it relishes a selection of the seemingly endless timbral potential of this format.

Strum, by Jessie Montgomery

Caroline Shaw‘s work, Entr’acte, demonstrates that she finds fascinating the very same thing as I do: a deep connection between the historicity of the quartet and its place in contemporary music: Shaw intentionally mimics Haydn, at the very same time creating something new and delectable. This occurs here didactically (a facility in composing that has been rare but I’m happy to see more of recently).

Entr’acte, by Caroline Shaw

So, the String Quartet—the ensemble and the music created for it—is both a thing of deep history, the there and then if you like, and, indisputably, the here and now. Which is just one of many reasons you need to pay more attention to it. I’m going to list some more for you. And I am going to talk about my own works for quartet as I do, because I’m in the midst of creating a heap of new music for this ensemble. Some of it is being released as an EP very soon, performed by Black Square Quartet – an extraordinary Brisbane-based ensemble.

Wall of Brisbane’s Old Museum; inside this building we recorded my Quartet II

2. String quartets are exquisitely intimate

I learnt this best when, in 2010, I attended a composer’s forum with the Australian String Quartet. It is hard to put into words what it’s like to sit just feet from a professional quartet as they perform a work by one of Australia’s most accomplished composers, Carl Vine, who is himself sitting right next to you. I mentioned religiousness before, well, maybe this added something too. But you don’t have to have been there; any quartet performance invites closeness. A string ensemble has a comparatively wide dynamic range, especially because of how softly they can play. There is something uniquely visceral about the way these performers move. Now, I don’t want to get too provocative, but goodness me it’s a sexy thing. It’s not the overt sexuality of a rock group; it’s more exquisite, maybe more real, in its way. If we were to divide all music into three realms: mind, body, and heart, then many would suppose that classical music has sometimes lacked an emphasis on body. If there’s a grain of truth in that, then the quartet is the antidote, because a quartet is all about bodies. Their movement, their facial expressions, their eye contact, their self-consciousness, their flamboyance, their chagrin, their delicacy.

The room in which we recorded my quartet

3. There’s an emphasis on equality, teamwork, and togetherness

Quartets serve as a composer’s autograph. We can look at historical composers and notice that their quartets exemplify that point in their musical development; this is as true for Bartók as for Beethoven. One reason for this is because the quartet is exceptionally well-balanced. Its powerful internal forces (and they are many) are matched at each of its extents, so that even as the first violin captures a listener with a virtuosic flourish, the cello can bring things back to solid ground with the heftier body of its tone. That balance of the group’s physical characteristics feeds a requirement for balance amongst the performers, even their personalities. Where any quartet has fully succeeded it seems to me to be when its members are as close-knit a team as is possible in any situation, musical or otherwise.

I have been lucky enough to join forces with the Black Square Quartet, founded by violinist Camille Barry. In all honesty, it’s like having a second family. If you have ever played in a musical group you may have a sense of what that’s like, but a composer isn’t always so involved. That intimacy that I mentioned earlier is something a composer can be a part of though, perhaps uniquely with a quartet. This may be especially true for me, because I am not a string player myself. It has been something like joining a family who speak a different language, and I’ve had to learn to be bilingual.

4. String quartets are a voice for new composers

If you are a classical composer, that chiefly means you want to write music for a collection of what we call classical instruments—the very ones you’d see in a symphony orchestra—but (and you may know this if you’re a composer), it’s not so easy to get an orchestra together to give your music even a single play through. Quartets are more down to earth.

Now pardon me while I venture off-topic momentarily, but I am a big fan of chess.

Truthfully, I’m not much good at it, but I’ve enjoyed learning about the game and the people who play it. It has been gratifying to see a remarkable rise in its popularity over the last year or so; there are a few contributing factors, including Covid lockdowns and a certain TV show called The Queen’s Gambit. I think that newfound popularity is wonderful, not just because it’s an enjoyable game, but also because a) it has deep historical roots, b) it’s totally sexy in a way most people don’t anticipate, and c) it was the province of nerds during my teenage years (no, I didn’t play it much back then, but yes, I was nerdy). Ah, you see some parallels then. I am not just hoping for, but anticipating a similar rise in interest in all things chamber music, and in string quartet music particularly. Young folks are becoming interested in these enchanting, cerebral, historical, yet secretly visceral pursuits, once again. Composers, get your hands on chamber ensembles, help them to do astounding things. How can a life be better spent?

5. individual groups can have their own sound

I have spent the last three years creating new music for this ensemble, with the help of Black Square Quartet. Together we are releasing an EP, which is my Quartet II, titled Five Quick-Tempered Dances. It was composed during lockdown (hence its quick-tempered nature), and was commissioned by Black Square as a danceable work. The recording was completed with the assistance of the venerable Monica Curro, who was able to musically direct the session, and I doubt we’d have as musically gratifying a result without her. The wonderful thing about Black Square is that they are cultivating a unique sound. To me it is earthy, precise but not prissy, gritty, gut-driven, with a dusting of punk. I wish I could release some rehearsal footage, but the language and jokes are not for a general audience. The point is, they are their own thing, and the more I learn about it, the more I come to understand this is true of any good quartet: they sound anything but homogeneous. If you thought string quartets are that group that plays at weddings, I’m here to tell you there’s a lot more to it than that!

I’ll tell you what, here’s just a tiny little sneak peek at Black Square rehearsing my new quartet (preceded by a snippet of an earlier piece of mine, Passacaglia) . The premiere was just a little while ago, but the EP is imminent:

I mentioned before that one of the beautiful things about the ensemble is that it is both historical and contemporary, at once. This greatly appeals to me (someone who has, for example, always enjoyed historical or alt history fiction!), because I can draw on those classical forms which are close to my heart, while creating something which is, at least by the broader definition, contemporary. Have I told you about fugues? I haven’t, have I. Fugues are the best. Really. Just thinking about a fugue can make me tear up. I will write a separate blog post about fugues, there, I’m committed. If you don’t know what a fugue is, all you need to know is it’s perhaps the most fun thing for a composer. It is to take a line of melody, then repeat that same line, forming new material underneath it. Then it is repeated again, and again, all the while the music grows in its complexity. This is a great thing for a quartet to do, because there are, naturally, four channels for that melody, ready to go. Fugues are dreamily, marvelously, steeped in history. Yet here I am, in the 2020s, wanting to write a fugue. It’s the best. Here’s my little attempt (the third movement of my first quartet), brought to you by the delicious Black Square Quartet:

My first quaret was commissioned by Ken Unsworth, with encouragement and advice from Kristian Winther, who premiered the work with Olim Quartet in 2019

In 2019, I was gratified in contributing to Katie Noonan’s album, The Glad Tomorrow, with the Australian String Quartet. Of course, Katie is a national treasure (I’m nowhere near the first person to say that!). These were song settings of the poetry of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, our dear local, world-renowned poet whose work I was lucky to study all the way back in high school English. Just when you thought quartets couldn’t get any more beautiful . . .

There are many other ways in which the quartet encompasses binaries: how they can be both classical and pop; how they can be both virtuosic and musically fulfilling all at once; how they can perform in front of the most sophisticated listeners or just in front of your Mum and Dad, and so on. Certainly, there is a symmetry to it—the world’s most pleasing semicircle—a beautiful division, divided again, coming together.

Be on the lookout for our new EP, and follow my page for updates.

The Black Square Quaret is Camille Barry, Michael Patterson, Charlotte Burbrook de Vere and Dan Curro.

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