Program Notes
by Paul Griffiths

John Cage (1912-92)
String Quartet in Four Parts

I. Quietly flowing along
II. Slowly rocking
III. Nearly stationary
IV. Quodlibet

Author of A Valentine Out Of Season (for prepared piano, 1944), Cage wrote two works reflecting larger seasonal change within the next few years: a ballet score The Seasons and this quartet, whose title refers not tautologically to the four instruments but to the four movements. Where texture is concerned, the quartet is most often in just one part, in accordance with a principle from Meister Eckhart the composer liked to quote: “The soul is so simple in itself that at any given moment it can only grasp one image.” (Later, Cage would go to the opposite extreme of simultaneous multifariousness.) The four instruments contribute to that single line, each having a small repertory (“gamut” was Cage’s term) of notes and chords, so that the same figures and harmonies keep recurring throughout the piece. Also consistent is the colour, since Cage asks for vibrato-free playing, which suggests (perhaps coincidentally) the viol consorts of long ago or folk fiddlers.

What changes, from movement to movement, is the particular choice of elements and also the degree of variety, and this is where the music rises to its seasonal metaphor. Just as the same trees are stark in winter but richly foliated in the summer, so in the winter movement here (the third) a few chords keep returnng, always on one or other of the two half-note beats, whereas the same chords appear in comparatively livelier contexts in other movements – though nothing here is at all fast, in keeping with Cage’s wish for a tranquility he associated with Indian art, and that he attained by reducing not only rhythmic activity but also creative purpose. Once the notes and chords to be used in a movement (a different selection in each case) have been fixed, the path from one to the next is directed not by the composer’s will, artistry, and taste but rather by a pre-established chart. “It’s a kind of music,” Cage said, “which doesn’t depend on one’s likes and dislikes,” and it represented a step towards chance composition.

Cage began writing the work in the summer of 1949, when he was in Paris, and he associated the first movement not just with summer but with summer in France. Similarly, the second movement, composed after his return, he felt to have the aura of fall in the U.S. The winter and spring movements, though, followed more quickly than the actual seasons. A quodlibet is a medley of popular tunes; Cage’s short example for spring has some of his fixed sounds coming together at last in something like a folk melody.

Aaron Cassidy (b. 1976)
String Quartet

Speech is not simple. When we speak, we bring several quite distinct mental and physiological operations into a beautifully calibrated enmeshing. The brain finds the right word for the context it is also finding; the lungs make a steady air flow, the vocal cords vibrate, and the throat, mouth, jaw, and lips are arranged so as to produce the intended sounds. If anything goes wrong at any of these levels, speech will be impaired.

So it is with playing a musical instrument, that different activities have to function smoothly together. To take an example from string instruments, the bowing or plucking of the right hand has to work in parallel with how the left hand moves on the fingerboard.

Artistic performance depends on getting these things right, at the highest level. But the creation of art may need them to go wrong. One example would be Cage’s invention of the prepared piano, in which obstructions are placed in the workings of the piano, resulting not only in new sounds (clanking, rattling, knocking, buzzing) but also in a new conception of instruments as producing only small selections of chosen sounds – a conception that made possible the String Quartet in Four Parts.

Aaron Cassidy, over the last decade, has been concerned with how things can go wrong in other ways – and go spectacularly right, in opening new ways for music to sound, and to feel, and to be. In particular, in his String Quartet (2001-2), he decoupled the working of the two hands, giving each musician a part written on two staves. One, for the left hand, looks quite conventional, indicating most often a music of microtonal chords slowly sliding up or down. The other, for the right hand, shows which strings are to be bowed (with carefully prescribed pressure) or plucked. Music that looks rather serene and gradual, therefore, may be cut across, and so come over as hectic and spasmodic.

This brings us back to speech, where a relatively stable flow of air becomes, through the diverse actions of the vocal apparatus, a stream of sounds so precise and diverse they can express anything within our understanding. Cassidy’s quartet – a single movement, playing for around seven minutes – finds new ways in which the four players can talk to each other, and to us. Moreover, in requiring the musicians to reconsider the basis of their technique, the score virtually guarantees a performance of unusual intensity.

The composer’s own note on the piece follows.

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) that 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.

Anton Webern (1883-1945)
Six Bagatelles, Op. 9

I. Mäßig
II. Leicht bewegt
III. Ziemlich fließend
IV. Sehr langsam
V. Äußerst langsam
VI. Fließend

Cage admired Webern as one who had appreciated the silence in music and the music in silence, such as we find in these pieces. Music here interrupts silence as little as possible: the longest movement (the fifth) lasts only a minute; the others are only half that length. As Schoenberg suggested in his preface to the score, we are presented with “a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a breath.”

There is nothing modest in this. What we have, rather, is evidence of a crisis. The withdrawal of tonality, achieved by Schoenberg in 1908 and by Webern very soon after, had sent music spiralling down like a collapsing star. These pieces – bagatelles only in their brevity – are white dwarves, of utmost intensity.

Webern wrote the four middle movements in the summer of 1911, and two years later went on to what he considered a separate group, of three pieces centered on a song, for soprano and quartet. Only in 1924 did he amalgamate the sets, leaving out the song.

The strings, after all, make their own songs, in traces of melody, the repeating notes, chords, or ostinatos of time stuck, and thunderclaps of shock.

Aaron Cassidy (b. 1976)
Second String Quartet

Cassidy’s Second String Quartet (2010) – also a single movement, with a duration of about nine minutes – continues on from its predecessor so far that it enters another new world. Identifiable pitches are no longer the point, and are not notated. Instead we are thrown into a turmoil of sounds and energies where virtually the only constancy is change.

This is action music. What is defined, for the hand on the strings and the hand with the bow (or plucking), includes position on the string, movement, and force. Using black and gray for the left hand and red and green for the right, the score is beautiful to look at (the composer puts up samples from his scores and from recordings on his website), and is surely no less prescriptive – and certainly no less challenging and stimulating – than conventional notation. It is also curiously appropriate for a work that consists so much of subtly colored noise, of sounds that zoom, scorch, stutter, gasp, and that find, in their inarticulateness, the means for a dynamic vividness of expression.

What may strike one, also, is how much the piece conforms to the medium in providing occasions for ensembles, dialogues, and solos. This new world turns out to contain the outlines of the old.

Again, the composer’s note fills in more of the background:

The story of this work starts with my String Quartet of 2001-2, 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 two to three years, 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 that 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.

Horatiu Radulescu (1942-2008)
“before the universe was born” (Fifth String Quartet)

Like everything else on tonight’s program, this piece, which plays continuously for half an hour, is partly about finding a new way for the quartet to sound and to be. In this case, we are drawn into a strange, often misty yet often also glistening world of microtonal tunings, abraded sonorities, and high harmonics, a world that is always slowly but seethingly in movement, and yet a world in which change is also stability.

Radulescu began the composition in 1990 and returned to it in 1995, in preparation for the première, which was given in Paris that year. Because the work’s newness depends on new and challenging techniques, performances have remained rare.

Of the quartet’s sixteen strings, only four – the bottom two of the cello (C–G) and the upper two of the viola (D–A) – are tuned as normal; the rest are set to other pitches in those harmonic series which include the four unchanged notes, such other pitches being more or less displaced from equal-tempered normality. Radulescu’s purpose here is not so much to make possible microtonal melody as to create complex spectra that, across a vast range of possibilities, will have an essential unity.

The cello’s lowest note is the core or foundation of the whole piece. All the players generally use their left hands not, as usual, to stop the strings and so have other notes sound, but rather to bring forward harmonics – sometimes extremely high harmonics – on the open strings: notes that emanate from and are contained in the cello’s C.

Also possible, and adding to the effect of nebulous unity, is the arrival at unisons, or quasi-unisons, produced by different harmonics on different strings. A notable instance comes about three-quarters of the way through, where a middle-register F# bulges forward, with contributions from every member of the ensemble.

All this imagery of unity and differentiation, of the whole and the wisp, of restlessness and stasis, of the individuated and the unshapen, the precise and the chaotic, and of all these things folding into one another, relates very directly to the teaching of the Tao Te Ching, from which, in Stephen Mitchell’s version, Radulescu took not just his title (“There was something formless and perfect before the universe was born”) but also phrases he placed at the top of each of the score’s twenty-nine pages, proceeding through the text from the first chapter (“The unnameable is the eternally real…. Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding.”) to the twenty-ninth (“The world is sacred. It can’t be improved.”)

According to Bob Gilmore, the leading Radulescu authority and creator of an informative website devoted to the composer, these phrases were meant to influence the musicians’ thinking and possibly also their rhythmic articulation, but the connection was never intended to be worked out in detail. We as listeners, too, maybe should let the words fade and hear the music as its own Tao.

Program note © Paul Griffiths

Born in Wales, Paul Griffiths has written books on music, novels and librettos.  Among the first are The Penguin Companion to Classical Music and The Substance of Things Heard, a selection from the reviews and essays he produced during more than thirty years as a music critic in London and New York.