This was a rare opportunity to hear, and to see at close quarters, one of the world’s great string quartets play one of the most ravishingly beautiful chamber pieces by a great British composer. If the turnout was tiny, that was presumably because the event, at which a matinee performance was preceded by an illustrated lecture, was billed as a ‘study day’.
The music of the composer, Jonathan Harvey, has been deeply influenced by his studies at IRCAM, a Parisian institution for electro-acoustic music. There Harvey produced compositions inspired by speech analysis that exploit digital technology and electronic sound sources. But the results are far from dry.
As Michael Clarke explained in his introductory talk (which was illustrated by the musicians playing key melodic fragments), Harvey’s String Quartet no. 4 was inspired by his interest in Buddhist thought. Specifically, its cyclical development of interlocking and recurring melodies through five movements is inspired by the Buddhist notion of ‘bardos’, or transitional states in the cycle of reincarnation.
This makes the piece a deeply absorbing experience, which develops from tentative beginnings through increasingly skittish or agitated passages to its final movements, in which intense expressivity is matched by a meditative sense of concentration.
Since the acoustic quartet is extended with live electronics—here handled by IRCAM’s Gilbert Nouno—the quartet effectively becomes a quintet.
The quartet and Nouno’s live-sampled sounds were played back through a six-speaker setup that facilitated an arresting use of ‘spatialization’ effects. With the speakers positioned around the listening space, the playback was parsed out to them in set patterns, creating a three-dimensional effect which was deeply immersive, all the more so in such an intimate setting.
Although the Arditti’s recording of this quartet, again abetted by Nouno, on the album ‘Jonathan Harvey: Complete String Quartets & Trio’ (2009, æon), is highly recommended, the live spatialization effects illuminated aspects of the composition that stereo reproduction simply cannot convey.
Nouno usefully described his electronic treatments—which were achieved by the granular synthesis, looping, layering and stretching of noises produced by the musicians playing behind the bridges or on the ribs of their instruments—as “clouds of sound”. That very nicely describes the breath sounds and rhythms that characterise the composition’s more subtle moments.
Unfortunately I couldn’t stay to hear the piece performed for a second time, after a short coffee break, but as it was I left with a deeper appreciation of what I already considered a favourite piece of music.