I composed this String Quartet in 1997 at the end of my time as an undergraduate at the Royal Northern College of Music, and I have dedicated the piece to Douglas Jarman, who was one of my tutors, and who introduced me to a lot of great music, much of which directly influenced this piece.
This Quartet was intended as a purely musical exploration, to offer music simply “about” music, and without an associated narrative of any kind. The work is comprised of my responses to several major 20th century works for the string quartet and also, perhaps incongruously, a technique used by David Bowie for writing lyrics. That is not to say that the Quartet is a straightforward scrapbook collection of quotations and obscure references; it takes up the themes of these works — most importantly, Bartok’s fifth string quartet — and takes off in a variety of directions.
Three lively movements (I, III and V) act as pillars around the second and fourth movements, which are contemplative in character. The fourth movement is built directly from the second movement, adding the whole second movement again — backwards, and upside down - over the top, resulting in some rich and spicy harmonies. The centre of the work is a fast and playful scherzo, perhaps reflecting the sometimes tongue-in-cheek evocation of other works in this Quartet.
David Bowie’s lyric-writing technique appears most obviously in the final, fifth movement of the Quartet. For his album Outside, Bowie took many disparate source texts, cut them up into small sections, then rearranged them almost at random, selecting and reselecting combinations that offered the most potential. Bowie’s collaborator Brian Eno compared Bowie’s strategy to evolution: “Natural selection, you know, throws out all these mutations, and a few of them get saved. The lyrics that got saved here, they would get fed back into the computer. So the brew kept getting enriched. It was the most amazing thing to see.” In my fifth movement, I take as my sources all the music from the first four movements, which itself is consciously assembled and re-assembled from many sources. This music is cut up and woven together again around and through the one section of new music in the fifth movement, a fugue. The subject of this fugue, which opens the movement, is a 12-note row, upon which the whole work is based. Both stylistically and technically, this is not the strict serialism of Schoenberg or Webern, but the more liberal, permissive serialism of Berg, or perhaps late-period Stravinsky.
Navarra String Quartet, 24th March 2005, at Bridewell Theatre, London
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