We all know what experimental music is, right? It’s horrible to the ear, dissonant, no structure, no sense, so why bother? But what if you blend experimental composing techniques with folk dances? What if this would be done by a composer well-known for his movie soundtracks (Drowning by Numbers, Gattaca, The Piano)? What if this would culminate in extraordinary creative, stimulating and powerful string quartets?
I am speaking here of the British composer Michael Nyman. In 1988, he wrote Quartet No. 2. It is simply fabulous. At the time I am writing this – April 2016 – I have listened to this piece at least a dozen times and I still find new aspects. This one for instance: What first appeared as dissonant is part of a cleverly constructed structure with repetitive elements. Or how the piece moves through the different variations of a theme. How it reflects the diversity of human emotions: joy of life in part I, fear and excitement in part II, tranquility and peace in part III. How close it actually is to rock music from the 80s for instance if you take part VI. of Quartet No. 2. The piece had been commissioned for a dance performance called “Miniatures”, choreographed and performed by the British choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh, who dictated the rhythmic structure of the piece. The structure of a traditional Indian dance originating from the temples of Tamil Nadu. Am I cool enough for this music?
Nyman does with classical music what any DJ does: sampling. But he doesn’t need electronic equipment. He just needs a string quartet willing to venture beyond its usual limits. The fact that Nyman often quotes himself or others has been discussed controversially, but in the end, his music is of a rare originality. It’s excellent tradecraft, if I may so as a someone who has not attended any composition class, but has been enjoying for decades to a whole range of music styles (classic, jazz, rock, pop, trip hop, electronic, country, folk).
In 1990, Nyman composed String Quartet No. 3 which reflects his studies of Romanian folk music in the 1960s and where he recycles part of his choral work “Out of the Ruins”. This becomes apparent in the second part called “fig. E” – so beautiful! Incidentally, it reminds me of an evening in Romania with live folks music that I really enjoyed despite (or because) of the huge quantities of Palinka consumed. String Quartet No. 3 had been commissioned by the Romanian violinist Alexander Balanescu, founder of the Balanescu Quartet.
John Bull meets Arnold Schönberg
The Balanescu Quartet has recorded the two mentioned quartets plus Quartet No. 1, commissioned in 1985 by the Arditti Quartet. And Quartet No. 1 really rocks! The first section, aptly called “beginning”, is followed by 11 more parts, figures B to L. Figures C, E and F are striking, but figure G tops it all. It’s got rhythm, it’s got emotion, it’s got earworm potential. Figure H is a variation of figure F, but played a little slower and fading out at the end. Figure L finally takes up some of the previous elements and moulds them into a long, almost never-ending finale. Oh, boy!
Here is what Nyman write himself about the piece:
“String Quartet No. 1 is dedicated to the memory of Thurston Dart, my professor at King’s College, London. Between 1961 and 1965 […] Dart gave me, as a 21st birthday present, his Musica Britannica edition of the complete keyboard works of the 17th 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 first: to make an almost orchestral chamber music […] 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 score I happened to peruse in my search for suitable material was Schönberg’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 here was a […] string quartet based on the one hand on an early 20th century work which […] 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 17th century, more that 150 years before two violins, a viola and a cello were moulded into that unchanging performance unit.”
I am truly glad that I read about Michael Nyman in a magazine on classical music – no advertisement here – otherwise I would probably not have discovered this composer and his three quartets. What a delight!
© Charles Thibo