String Quartet


SKU: 200201 Category: Tags: ,


instrumentation: 2 vln, va, vc
date: 2001-02
duration: 7’15
details: 32 pages, including performance instructions; A3 landscape

Programme Note

Forgive the absence of an evocative title.  The work is, in a sense, about the string quartet, about four players, four (by four) strings, the physical nature of sound production on stringed instruments, the interplay between soloist and ensemble, the intersection of bow and string and finger.  The work is, in another sense, about splintering, about destabilizing the string quartet and its conventions (again, of the interaction between players, the interchange of bow hair and string), about disrupting and reorienting the origins and trajectories of expressive, musical energy.

There exists in this work an extreme dislocation between the physical activities of the players and the sounding results of those actions.  The aural surface is a byproduct of the collision of independent, corporeal strata:  ubiquitous quadruple-stop glissandi, frequent changes in finger pressure, rapid (and rhythmically independent) figuration, and intricate bow movements (with constant shifts in bow placement, position, pressure, and speed) combine to create often unpredictable consequences.  Here, physicality drives the musical surface – the harmonic organization of the piece derives not from abstract connections between pitches but instead from a set of carefully mapped hand and finger positions.  In this method of construction, musical matter is related not by sonic exteriors but rather by physical (and even visceral) movements, states of being, energies, and locations.  Moreover, transmutational devices – transposition, inversion, diminution, etc. – are no longer applied to sounding relationships.  Instead, it is the body itself (the body of the performer and its interaction with the body of the instrument) which is transformed and transposed.  In a sense, “material” in this work is not the pitches and rhythms created by the performers but the actions employed to create those sounds.

The structural method of the work is largely influenced by Roman Jakobson ’s research of aphasia, a neurological-linguistic disorder in which an individual’s ability to use and understand speech is severely impaired.  There are two primary aphasia types, as Terrence Hawkes explains:  “In the patient suffering from ‘similarity’ disorder, only the syntagmatic or combinative aspects of language seem to be preserved, and there is a consequent inability to deal in ‘associative’ relationships, such as ‘naming’, the use of synonyms, definitions – i.e., the raw material of metaphors.  However, such patients employ metonymy widely:  they will substitute fork for knife, table for lamp, smoke for fire.  Meanwhile, in the patient suffering from ‘contiguity’ disorder, the reverse situation pertained.  The syntactical rules organizing words into higher units are lost, and the patient’s speech is largely confined to the substitution of words by similarities of a metaphoric nature.”  These two disorders are the primary (anti-)organizational tool in the Quartet.  The physical gestures of the work are distorted, fragmented, and folded in a mimicry of the linguistic dislocation of grammar, syntax, signifiers, and symbols found in aphasics.  There is, in a sense, a rupture of understanding between instruments, a failed attempt to refigure and recombine physical materials and gestures from elsewhere in the piece.  The unpredictable processes of substitution and syntactic disintegration of aphasics serves as the ideal extension of the multi-planar, decoupled performance techniques described above.

The work was commissioned by the Kairos Quartett (to whom it is dedicated) and the Haupstadtkulturfonds Berlin, with additional funding from the Copying Assistance Program of the American Music Center.


JACK Quartet. Monday Evening Concerts. Zipper Concert Hall, Los Angeles. February 2011.


Luc Döbereiner, “Materiality, Contingency and Emergence of Compositional Material,” Contemporary Music Review, December 10, 2020. 

“Physicality and Choreography as Morphological Determinants.” Musical Morphology. New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century, Volume 2. Mahnkopf, Schurig and Cox, eds. Wolke Verlag, 2004.


In rehearsal with Quatuor Diotima, June in Buffalo 2005


Recording session with JACK Quartet, Huddersfield, 2009


Recording session with JACK Quartet, Huddersfield, 2009 (with my student Timothy McCormack and my colleague (and recording engineer) Pierre Alexandre Tremblay)

JACK Quartet. Monday Evening Concerts. Los Angeles, USA. February 14, 2011. String Quartet and Second String Quartet 

JACK Quartet, Darmstadt Summer Courses, Germany. July 23, 2010.

JACK Quartet, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, USA. January 23, 2010.

JACK Quartet, Kilbourn Hall, Eastman School of Music, Rochester, NY. October 16, 2009.

JACK Quartet, Center for 21st Century Music, University at Buffalo, Buffalo NY.  October 13, 2009.

JACK Quartet. Le Poisson Rouge, New York, September 14, 2009.

JACK Quartet, University of Huddersfield, UK, March 26, 2009.   

JACK Quartet, Festival Internacional Chihuahua, Chihuahua, Mexico, September 28, 2008.   

JACK Quartet. University of Illinois, Champaign, IL.  May 4, 2007.   

JACK Quartet. Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.  May 2, 2007.   

JACK Quartet. The Tank, New York, NY.  April 20, 2007.   

Quatuor Diotima. June in Buffalo 2005.   

Kairos Quartett. “Funf Fenster auf Musik für Streichquartett nach 1950” concert series (Fenster 4: KOMPLEX), Berlin, Germany, May 2002.  Radio broadcast by DeutschlandRadio, Berlin.