Argo 433 093-2
The Balanescu Quartet
Alexander Balanescu: violin I
Jonathan Carney: violin II
Kate Musker: viola
Anthony Hinnigan: cello
These three string quartets were not conceived as a series. They owe their origins to three very different circumstances: the First was commissioned by the Arditti Quartet in 1985; the Second, for the Balanescue Quartet, was commissioned in 1988 by Shobana Jeyasingh for her solo dance work Miniatures (re-named Configuratiosn in its three-dancer form), while the Third was written at the suggestion of Alexander Balanescu for a benefit concert for Romania that he organised at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on 16 February 1990. However, viewing these three quartets together for this Argo recording has revealed a consistency of compositional appraoch which quite unwittingly unifies them and sets them distinctly apart from my other works. Each quartet is built around the principle of conflict -not necessarily conflict between the instruments, as is the traditional view of the quartet medium- but more interestingly (since it was not a conscious approach) conflict between sets of musical material which appear to be at odds with each other, between the pre-formed and the freely-composed. In Quartet No. 1, for instance, between two discovered objects separated by three centuries; in Quartet No. 2, between strictly observed Indian rhythmic systems and a doggedly European sensiblility, and in Quartet No. 3 between a choral work I wrote in the summer of 1989 and a number of Romanian folk music fragments.
String Quartet No. 1 - The String Quartet No. 1 is dedicated to the memory of Thurston Dart, my professor at King’s College, London, between 1961 and 1965, in one of my earlier incarnations as would-be Ph.D student and musicologist. Dart gave me as a 21st birthday present his Musica Britannica edition of the complete keyboard works of the seventeenth-century composer John Bull, including his set of variations on the popular song ‘Walsingham’, from which this Quartet borrows heavily and openly.
Two background ideas influenced the conception of this piece: the irst: to make an almost ‘orchestral’ chamber music (influenced by the Arditti Quartet performance of the Grosse Fuge which was so theatrical that it gave the impression that Beethoven was attempting to burst open the ‘natural’ confines of the medium) and the second: (perhaps) to exorcise the impressive and oppressive history of the string quartet by making my work a compendium of quotations from the quartet repertoire. The first core I happened to peruse in my search for suitable material was Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet; and having discovered a congenial fragment -the ghostly rising and falling note demisemiquaver pattern, spread successively from the bottom to the top of the instrumental range- I decided to look no further. So there was a projected ‘historical’ string quartet based on the one hand on an early twentieth-century work which (as luck would have it) broke the constraints of the medium by adding a soprano voice, and on the other hand on a work written for keyboard in the early seventeenth century, more than 150 years before two violins, a viola and a cello were moulded into that unchanging performance unit.
Everything in String Quartet No. 1 (apart from the final section) is derived from these two conflicting sources: the Schoenberg fragment is used ‘passively’ to generate chromatic harmonic sequences, while all of Bull’s thirty modal / diatonic variations are used ‘actively’, submitted to a new critical scrutiny. A number of things fascinated me about the Bull work: it is art music based on popular music (with pre-echoes of late twentieth-century pop-music); the 8-bar theme on which it is based has an interesting structure (it begins in the minor, ends in the major, and is harmonised with the same chord in bars 2, 4, 6 and 8, and thus has an internal repetitiveness) while the structure of the work as a whole can be described as a form of ‘developmental repetition’ to which I am obviously most sympathetic. Sometimes I view the Bull material horizontally, by submitting his variations to a secondary variation process, and sometimes vertically (as in the first and third sections) where the Bull variations are sliced up according to harmonic category, so that in the first section, for instance, all the bars which Bull harmonised with A minor or major are placed side by side in a sequence which (like the rest of the work as a whole) shifts between four interrelated tempi kept in check by the fast repeated notes of the second violin (a part written expressly around the talents of Alexander Balanescu, with whom I had been working fruitfully since the late 70s, and who in 1985 was temporarily occupying the second violin chair of the Arditti Quartet).
This ‘metric modulation’ may partly have been introduced as an ironic homage to the modernist repertoire with which the Arditti Quartet were most comfortable; whereas the expansive closing melody, with its seventeenth-century-style decorative ‘divisions’ increasing in pace, pushed them into regions they had hitherto never explored.
String Quartet No. 1 is cast in a continuous, sectional grid-like form.
String Quartet No. 2 - Sometime in the mid-eighties I saw a performance of a Bharata Natyam dancer at the Riverside Studios in Londin. I was particularly excited by the fact that all the choreography seemed to derive from the very audible rhythms of the foot movements. In 1988 Shobana Jeyasingh, having heard of my interest in South Indian dance, asked me to compose the score for a solo dance work she was planning. Miniatures thus originated in our common interest in number systems and rhythmic structures. I instantly decided that the string quartet was the ideal medium: partly because it is quintessentially European (it was cricial to me that though the work was to be rooted in Indian rhythms, it should in no way sound Inian); partly because the different rhythmic functions ascribed to each of the instruments in the Indian ensemble which traditionally accompanies Bhrata Natyam dance were most successfully transferred to stringed instruments; but mainly because I wanted to write a new work for the recently-formed Balanescu Quartet (who would play live during the dance performance but, more importantly, take String Quartet No. 2 into their repertoire as an autonomous concert piece).
I approached the task of composing Miniatures as a virtuoso challenge in that my taste and invention were not involved in the choice of the basic rhythmic world that we were dealing with (rather like the pre-compositional ‘rhytmic structures’ that John Cage allowed to dominate the scores he wrote during the 30s and 40s, with the important difference that Jeyasingh’s rhythms were very specific and closely related to centuries-old musical / dance tradition). My (choreographer-imposed) task was to remain totally faithful to the given rhythmic information -specifc rhythms, cyclical structures and speeds (all of which had to be audibly present for the dancer), while my (composer-imposed) prode obviously required the work to make an individual statement by means of overlaying personal melodic, harmonic, structural, dynamic, textural and iconographic vocabularies over the given (and openly accepted) rhythmic information. And occasionally an accidental misunderstanding of the rhytmic principles of Karnatic music would bring about a musical enrichment: most notably in the fifth movement, where the regular 9-beat (2+3+2+2) rhythmic pattern is permanently contradicted by a constantly-repreating 8-beat first violin meoldy.
String Quartet No. 2 is cast in six movements, each governed by its own rhythmic cycle: 4-beat, 5-beat, 6-beat, 7-beat, 9-beat and multiple cycles in the inal movement.
String Quartet No. 3 - In the summer of 1989 I composed a choral work, Out of the Ruins, for Agnieszka Piotrowska’s BBC2 documentary which dealt with the physical and emotional responses of some inhabitants of Leninakhan to the earthquake which devastated Armenia the previous December. When he heard the recording of the work that I made with the Holy Echmiadzin Chorus under the fervent conducting of Khoren Meykhanejian, Alex Balanescu suggested turning Out of the Ruins into a string quartet. There seemed no reason or opportunity to do this until I felt the need to add to the intensity of my experiences in Armenia the no less profound experience of witnessing the images of the Romanian revolution on television during the later part of December 1989.
Just as the sectional structure of my Third String Quartet may connect it with the First, so they also share a debt to Thurston Dart. It was Dart who had the inspiration to send me to Romania in 1965, ostensibly to study folk music. The volumes of transcriptions that I brought back with me had remained unopened until, with this proposed ‘celebratory’ string quartet (though it is difficult to know quite what to celebrate in post-revolutionary Romania), an occasion arose where I could use this material in what seemed to me was a non-exploitative manner. The compositional procedure was as follows: to take Out of the Ruins as a template on which the Romanian vocal or instrumental music would be superimposed, quite often stretched into new intervallic shapes through the demands of the completely pre-formed harmonic structure.