String Quartet No.1 - Light Music


string quartet
String Quartet
for Sinan Savaskan
First Performance
FP: 15.6.2013, Aldeburgh Festival, Aldeburgh Church: Arditti String Quartet

score and parts on special sale

Programme Notes

Light Music explores the colour of sound. The timbres, textures and harmonies evolve and transform in a manner analogous to filtering light through a glass prism. The piece uses a scale of graded steps from order to disorder. Maximum rhythmic stability is regular pulse; maximum pitch stability is rendered by the consonances of the natural overtone series, or a part of it; maximum stability of timbre is normal bowing (pizzicato is not used). Maximum rhythmic disorder is rendered by highly irregular and unpredictable sequences of durations, or polyphonies of them. Maximum harmonic disorder is rendered by extremes of dissonance, verging on white noise; timbrally the equivalent is the use of various extended playing techniques such as extreme bow pressure, producing noisy grating on the string. Transformations between all of these persist throughout the piece, as do combinations of them. For example, rhythmic stability may be combined with medium acoustic dissonance in the harmony played with variable bow pressure and position (as in the second section of the work, and again differently in the bell-chord simulation of the final section); then all these may change at different rates and in polyphony with each other, etc. The emphasis on gradual change results in a work which has no breaks or caesuras. It proceeds from start to finish in a continuous chain of transformations. In effect, the piece unfolds as a single large process in which sectional demarcations are almost erased, though one which does not exclude ruptures or the occasional shock. The work is played without vibrato, and it uses microtones throughout. Both of these features help the four instruments in the quartet blend repeatedly into a single ‘hyper-instrument’ – the work is a permanent tutti in which all instruments play non stop. The pitches are derived from acoustic considerations, in three different ways.

1) The harmony may be derived from instrumental transcriptions of recorded acoustic spectra – this happens at the opening and throughout the final section, both of whose harmonic components are derived from inharmonic bell sounds transcribed to the nearest quarter-tone.

2) Alternatively the spectral analysis of various bow positions and pressures generates new pitches – e.g. pressured bowing often gives an unstable resultant tone a major seventh below the played pitch – such resultant tones are then picked up by other players and precipitate a change in the harmonic fabric; alternatively bowing near the bridge sul ponticello gives a nasal sound emphasizing the 3rd and 5th overtones of the played pitch, which resultant tones also precipate harmonic changes.

3) The sums and difference tones of simultaneous pitches are transcribed to the nearest quarter-tone, rendering possible a third type of harmonic change in the score.

All of the above techniques plus the use of justly tuned harmonic series necessitated non-standard tuning. Both the numerous microtones, the changing rhythmic language and the use of perpetually varied bow pressure and/or position make the work a virtuosic one, very suited to the abilities of the Arditti String Quartet. When it was composed in 1984-5, Light Music was probably the first instrumental example by a British composer of what is now referred to as spectral music – using the acoustic structures of sound and perception as the basis of composing. That said, the piece has a gestural violence and immediacy not generally characteristic of the French examples of that genre. (This may be due to the complimentary influence of what is still my favorite of all modern quartets, that by American composer Ruth Crawford from 1931.)

Light Music's performance requirements – rapid microtonal intonation, incomplete irrational time signatures, and other techniques referred to above - were deemed to render it unplayable by the main UK performing organizations at the time of its composition. It’s perhaps interesting to recall that I received encouragement from Jonathan Harvey, who discussed the score in technical detail with me in November 1985. Later Harvey himself was to become an enthusiastic advocate of spectral techniques in his very personal vision of them from the nineties onwards. I also remain (despite important reservations) interested in spectral techniques but since 1985 have expanded my ideas of how these are applied in practice. Composing Light Music was a vital experience for me, and the impossibility of hearing it performed caused my composing to slow to near standstill for a while. Just how much the piece mattered to my later work may be gauged by the fact that it was as a direct result of making a new version of this piece for string orchestra (itself not yet performed) in summer 1988 that musical ideas occurred to me for what became my first published pieces - Diptych (1988/90) Khorovod (1988/95), The Stations of the Sun (1988/98) and several others - though on the surface these sound very different both from each other and from the present work. As you can hear today Light Music, though very virtuosic, is in fact perfectly playable. I wish to express my very warm thanks to the Arditti String Quartet for persuading me to let them bring this, my first, to performance and publication. Although composed long ago, Light Music has many harmonic and other features which have re-appeared in my music since, and therefore I have not changed a note.

Julian Anderson

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