Newsletter #52

This is the last in our series of occasional newsletters featuring chamber music that means something special to our authors. The next newsletter will be sent when we are able to inform you about plans for the 2020/21 season. Until we know what those plans are we shall not be asking members to renew their subscriptions.

Today’s article is by Jack Adler-McKean, step-son of Mary, our Chair. Jack takes us into territory that is unfamiliar to most of us here at Strings Attached, who thought we were being progressive when we wrote about Sally Beamish and Ruth Crawford Seeger. Whether we like the music that Jack writes about or not we need to realise that most of what we listen to is far from modern. It may be part of the answer to the question the Strings Attached committee repeatedly poses: why do we have such difficulty attracting young audience members?

So, here is Jack’s contribution. Click on any underlined word to be taken to a performance, or a discussion, or a biography or an unfamiliar term.

Jack Adler-McKean in performance
Jack Adler-McKean in performance

The String Quartet since 1970

As a musician who spends most of his time playing lower brass instruments, I have at best a tangential relationship to the medium of the string quartet. Nevertheless, and despite my eternal frustration at string quartets receiving the lion’s share of chamber music programming both today and for the last two-and-a-half centuries, the genre has a special place in my musical memory. Whether it was studying Joseph Haydn’s Fifths quartet (1797/98) as a teenager in Brighton, or hearing Pierre Boulez’s Livre pour Quatuor (1948–2012) whilst sitting next to the man himself on a rainy afternoon in Lucerne, the string quartet somehow consistently manages to leave lasting impressions.

I would like to share with you a few of my favourite quartets from the last half-century. Reflecting the pluralistic nature of contemporary music in such a brief snapshot is, of course, impossible. Entire genres worthy of exploring include minimalism (from Morton Feldman’s five-and-a-half hour Second Quartet (1983) to Steve Reich’s emotional WTC 9/11 (2009–10)), spectralism (from Horațiu Rădulescu’s Fourth Quartet (1976–87) accompanied by an “imaginary 128-stringed Viola da Gamba” (in reality eight additional string quartets tuned to natural harmonics) to Georg Friedrich Haas’s Third Quartet “In iij. Noct.” (2001) (as the name suggests, to be performed in complete darkness)) and the use of electronics (from George Crumb’s Black Angels (1970) for “electric string quartet” to Ashley Fure’s Anima (2016–17) using mobile transducers to amplify the wood of the instruments themselves). Whilst writing this, I also discovered that Ben Johnston’s Seventh Quartet (1984) has finally been recorded, a demonstration of quite how beautiful microtonal music can be, regardless of its reputation as the ‘most difficult’ string quartet ever written (more on that here). These works are all undoubtedly deserving of a listen, but here are three quartets that have made a special impact on me in recent years, all from composers who seem to have largely struggled to gain a foothold thus far in British programming schedules.

In the case of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, this is perhaps in part for political reasons. Seriously wounded in 1944 while fighting in the armed resistance against Churchill’s imposition of martial law, and later sentenced to death (in absentia), he escaped to Paris in 1947 where, having graduated in Athens with a degree in civil engineering, he got a job at Le Corbusier’s architectural studio. His studies with Olivier Messiaen, however, lead to a compositional career, and he received his first official commission in 1958, yet his mind for mathematical theory combined with his violent youth was to forever influence his career. I was first exposed to the visceral, ferocious power of his music in a late night performance of his gigantic Pléiades (1979) for percussion sextet; a few days after, I heard his final string quartet Tetras (1983), yet I still wasn’t anywhere near prepared to hear the genre I had come to know and love ripped apart and squashed back together in front of my eyes. Easy listening it is not, but an extraordinary feast for the senses nonetheless.

As a pupil of Xenakis, it is perhaps unsurprising that Helmut Lachenmann also felt it necessary to create his own genre from scratch. It was, however, his first teacher Luigi Nono’s post-war condemnation of melody and harmony as bourgeois that encouraged him to develop his unique voice, though he never adopted Nono’s embrace of electronic media. Instead, he developed a style known today as musique concrète instrumentale, that is, translating the real-world sound collages of musique concrète into music that can be created on acoustic instruments. I have since been fortunate to work with him on numerous occasions, yet when I, as an undergraduate student, first heard his first string quartet Gran Torso (1971–72/78), it was unlike anything my ears had encountered before. If you make it as far as the moment where the violist alone is bowing their tailpiece (ca. 8:00), then I hope you can enjoy the same feeling of sonic discovery I experienced a decade ago.

Amongst the plethora of composers I’ve had the opportunity to work with since that moment, the one who comes to mind today is Tyshawn Sorey. To date, I have only been able to work with him in his capacity as a drummer in a performance of Olga Neuwirth’s Eleanor (2006/14) in New York, but my ears were captured by his music upon hearing his work for string quartet, two vibraphones, glockenspiel and piano Sentimental Shards (2014) later in the same programme. Described by New Music America as music that “defies time-worn genre definitions and challenges the gate-keepers of classical music to recognize the compositional work of musicians of color often incorrectly categorized as jazz artists”, his music, to me, manages to reflect the same eternal anger of Xenakis but through an extremely refined, beautifully subtle lens. Recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2017, I find his quartet Everything Changes, Nothing Changes (2018) ideal for quiet reflection on the current state of the world.

As a postlude, the vast majority of these works are inexorably intertwined with the quartets for whom they were written. From the long-standing Arditti and Kronos quartets to the younger JACKMivos and Ligeti quartets, these outstanding ensembles cannot be recommended highly enough to anyone interested in exploring the multifaceted music of today.

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