Second String Quartet (2009-10)
Commissioned by Südwestrundfunk/Donaueschinger Musiktage for the JACK Quartet. The collaborative research work with the JACK Quartet in the development of this piece was supported through a generous grant from the ‘Practice Led and Applied Research’ scheme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
The story of this work starts with my String Quartet of 2002, which involved a focusing and minimizing of earlier experiments I had made in instrumental ‘decoupling’, a separation of the various activities of instrumental sound production (drawing on work by Hübler, Barrett, Ferneyhough, and others). I had been working with this approach to instrumentation for 2-3 years by 2002, but String Quartet involved a significant reduction in available physical movements and, concomitantly, a new way of thinking about material (here prioritizing physical motions to the point that these motions themselves were materials, rather than means to an end). My relationship to pitch and harmony changed quite dramatically through that work, and what had started as a ‘closing in’, a refinement, instead created a significant ‘opening out’, a springboard for eight years of new experimentation. The first Quartet led to a lengthy but extremely fruitful process of developing tablature notations which better represented and communicated the role of physicality as material. This notation developed slowly over a series of works (not only for strings, but also brass and woodwinds), and in many ways this tablature project has come to its own point of focusing and condensation in the Second Quartet.
Whereas in my earlier works for strings each individual layer of planar motion (x, y, and z axis motions for both the right and left hands) was notated independently on a separate staff, here these movements are compressed onto a single, multi-colored staff. This simpler, more direct, more immediate presentation of materials opened up an extremely exciting new range of musical materials for me. There were suddenly new movements, new gestures, new ways of thinking about and organizing those gestures, substantially more intricate textures than I had been able to create and confront in earlier works, and, crucially, new ways of thinking about how those materials can be shared and exchanged in the unique polyphonic world of the string quartet.
The most important aspect of this ‘opening out’ has been the freeing of physical movements from their normal geographical roles. As was true in the first quartet, this piece is about the string quartet, about its physical materials and characteristics, but here the string is a much more open, unbounded topographical space. The left and right hands move across this space freely, with carefully mapped types of movement – for the left hand, the movement up and down the fingerboard, the width of the fingers, and pressure of the fingers all shift independently with a sort of viscous, unstable motion; for the right hand, the contact point between bow and string, the pressure of the bow, and the speed of up- and down-bow motion are again mapped as three separate planes of possible movement. These mappings of speed, of pressure, of lateral and horizontal motion are guided by a fairly simple, limited collection of gestural models (families of types of physical action), which then push back against a superimposed set of restrictions of available space for those movements. This restriction and resistance occurs simultaneously and independently on each of the possible planes of movement for both the left and right hands.