A Parcel of Airs – c.11 minutes
Scamander – c.14 minutes
Ending Up – c.12 minutes
The Voices of Dust – c.16 minutes
A PARCEL OF AIRS
For several years John Woolrich has been patiently turning wood, fashioning from the bodies of violin, viola and cello two dozen short quartets. Or perhaps, since he is consciously gathering them into a book of inventions, we can think of them as a mega-quartet, a continuous project of fascination with this hallowed medium. We might imagine that each ten-minute piece, when given life in a space, occupies its own parcel of air. Each might indeed have carried the title of this one, since as ever Woolrich has applied his label after the fact. To conjure their music from gut and wood, the players must apply pressure, and Woolrich here has added his own; there are knots in this wood, a near-constant beat of dissonance which disrupts the grain and spews fragments of melody up or down. Different kinds of compression produce different effects. This thorny material is being turned in the hand, and sometimes we catch a second or third view of something we recognise. At times it is close to us, at others as if seen from a distance. It is the composer’s own fascination with his journey which provides our own.
In Greek mythology Scamander was a river-god, son of the Titans Oceanus and Tethys, and the personification of the eponymous river that flowed across the plain of Troy. This mythological background suggests the idea of a river journey, whose bends enable views of the same landscape features from different perspectives. The musical flow explores a number of rhythmic and melodic figures, and generates considerable tension in its contrast of fast and slow motion. After a brief slow introduction, quicker material bubbles into action, and as the rhythmic activity tightens, some slower melodic lines begin to penetrate the weave until a point of maximum tension is reached about two-thirds of the way through the 14-minute span. But it’s the slow music that wins out finally, and the musical river spreads out into a delta-like coda before reaching the open sea.
All the hallmarks that make John Woolrich’s music so alluring are evident in Ending Up – the idiomatic instrumental writing from a master transcriber, a meticulous balance, a wistful lyricism tugged at by disruptive undercurrents. But what is most striking here is the patience with which the ideas are explored and developed, the work given a gentle, unhurried propulsion by the transformation of the opening bars, often wrapped in sparse and translucent textures. The spell is unbroken save for brief gruff lower string interjections, whereupon the opening material returns, gliding upwards towards a vertiginous resolution. A Book of Inventions for string quartet (a medium that seems to suit Woolrich and which he evidently adores) seems like an energetic refiring of creativity. This single slow movement is a taut, eloquent addition to a compelling collection.
THE VOICES OF DUST
In interview, John Woolrich has said that he writes abstractly – non-programmatically – and adds titles later, merely because other people require the pieces to have a name. Even so, the names he chooses are often evocative in their own right, showing his love of language. He could, after all, get away with giving his pieces utilitarian titles like 'String Quartet No.23' or 'Divertimento', whereas he'll go for 'Lending Wings', 'The Turkish Mouse', 'Toward the Black Sky' and so on.
The Voices of Dust from his sequence of string quartets is typical. Even if I hadn't seen it performed in an eerily lonesome storeroom on the Chatham docks, originally used for tarred yarn but now perennially vacant, I would have been capable of weaving a story around this movement.
I imagine a vintage string piece – by Purcell, perhaps, or Brahms – which has collapsed and died of old age. Then, in the 21st century, by some stroke of sorcery, the constituent sounds of the piece wake up from their slumber of death. The tidy structure that originally cohered them has long since disintegrated. But here they are – sonorous moans of cello, murmurs of viola, cries & sighs of violins, rising from the dust. They articulate themselves, hesitantly at first, as if astonished to find themselves alive again. Then, as the minutes pass, they become more mindful of each other, gaining pleasure and consolation from each other's presence. Gradually, they rebuild a structural relationship, somewhere along the spectrum towards the sort of harmonic unity they had in Purcell's or Brahms's time. But that body cannot be reconstituted. What we have instead is something more skeletal, more ghostly, more imbued with loss. And these qualities give it its own distinctive potency.