String Quartet No.2 - "Play On the Water" (Klee)


string quartet
String Quartet
First Performance
21.6.73, Australia House, London: University of Sussex String Quartet

A4 facsimile score 0-571-55496-2 (fp) and parts 0-571-55497-0 (fp) on sale

Programme Notes


The writing of a string quartet seems to me to accompany a period in my life of intense personal and musical crisis, upheaval and change. Such were the circumstances which immediately preceded the composition of my first work for this medium, String Quartet No. 1 “Tu dai oan” (The Fourth Generation) which is a set of variations on a Vietnamese folk melody. Not surprisingly, perhaps, in searching for an idea for the second quartet I found myself drawn to the work of Paul Klee, wishing, as he wished, ‘to be as though new born, knowing nothing about Europe, nothing, knowing no pictures (or music or poems), entirely without impulses, almost in an original state.’ It was, however, a picture, or rather a small reproduction of a line drawing by Klee –“Play on Water” (1931) – which suggested some of the first ideas for the composition of the quartet. Like Klee, I determined in this piece to limit my musical material to the simplest possible of original forms. Thus in the quartet there is a disciplined use of pentatonic scales, rhythmic ostinato and two-, three-, and four-note melodic fragments which are repeated over and over again in the manner of an incantation. This material is built into juxtaposed blocks of sound, the structural principle being something like the placement of bricks in building a wall.

The work consists of five movements which are arranged symmetrically around the third and central movement – itself made up of symmetrical blocks of material. The first and fifth linear movements are closely related to each other. Both move towards and away from a centrally placed musical spiral in which each player has four fragments of material which may be played in any order, at any dynamic, and last for any duration. These movements can be related to the harsh and dramatic landscapes such as those which are characteristic of the desert regions of central Australia. The second and fourth movements are lighter and more playful in character, each being based on ideas from ring games played by young children and the repetitive patterns of birdsong. The third movement is extremely static and could perhaps fancifully be compared with reflections upon the surface of a very calm pool of water.

Like most of my recent works this music is intended more as ritual than as expression.


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