For All Ages
JACK Quartet. Photograph: Justin Bernhaut.

For All Ages

Since its invention in the eighteenth century, the string quartet has proved one of the most resilient forms, continuously reinvented and repurposed for changing times. Having just completed a new string quartet of his own, composer Peter Rosser reflects on the medium's consistent allure.

I feel air streaming from another planet.
Paling through the gloom behind are faces
That turned to me as friends a while ago.

From Stefan George’s Entrückung

In 1908 Arnold Schoenberg tried to escape the confines of the string quartet, or at least to get to grips somehow with its dissolution. Was there anywhere else to go? At the age of thirty-three, and writing his second string quartet, the composer announced that a journey had begun. Using the poet Stefan George’s Entrückung (meaning either ‘rapture’ or ‘transport’) as his finale, and using an alien Other in the form of a  soprano to deliver the message, Schoenberg felt perhaps that he could see a way through to a kind of Borgesian garden of forking paths: ‘A fabric of times… [that] includes all possibilities.’ He went on to create one of the most dazzling bodies of work of the twentieth century. He even went on to write another two string quartets. 

It seems that when times become troubled the string quartet always comes into its own. In this way Beethoven’s late (some would say honorary-twentieth-century-) quartets become the most viable pathways in music to the modern mind. And then there are Shostakovich’s fifteen attempts to create some kind of personal freedom away from the madness of the Soviet Union’s unending gaze; these compositions enmesh aesthetics and politics like never before. And what of the modern classics, the quartets that smear themselves across the windscreen as a terrified people speed through the black century of death camps, napalm, murderous motorcades, ecological disasters? Different Trains, Black Angels, Helikopter, Tetras have become as iconic, if not to say as useful, as novels such as The Atrocity Exhibition or films like Apocalypse Now in encoding an aesthetic approach to the times.

During the twentieth century and through the new millennium, this most traditional of chamber music groupings has remained the most vital of forms for composers who want to explore the depths of their craft, and for string players who want to explore music-making at its most rigorously exercised. And alongside the rock group and the modern jazz quintet, the string quartet has undoubtedly become the kind of ensemble that best expresses modernity. Ensembles such as the Kronos and Arditti quartets, and in recent years the Diotima and JACK quartets, have become firebrands in the cause of what could be called the ‘avant-garde experience’, the mission to prove the importance of forms of expression that straddle the divides between past and future, between heritage and revolution. 

Medium meets message

If cultural history is understood as an examination of conventions, and especially of exhausted conventions, then the string quartet seems ideally placed to provide a valuable perspective. And this not just because it remains bound by its own conventions — uncomplicatedly traced back to the eighteenth century — but because it’s so frequently able to stand above and beyond them. It’s difficult to imagine the wind quintet or the mixed contemporary music ensemble as conduit for cold war tension or ideological shift; and if the symphony orchestra is a different matter, its heft and pure visibility (plus its necessarily state-funded existence), make it more directly a concern of arts councils and cultural relations bodies. In contrast, the string quartet can get behind enemy lines. Like the rock and jazz group, this is where integrations of form and content, of medium and message are most complete. 

For the composer, the challenge is a delicious one: it’s not just the equality of a limited number of seemingly unlimited voices that creates this rarefied environment, it’s also the way in which the string quartet is so welcoming to intellectual adventure. This is where rigorous technique can be given room to manoeuvre, and where a contemporary type of polyphony finds its most fervent supporters. It’s also through the professional quartet that composers can work for extended periods of time with truly dedicated performers, full-time exponents of a vast labyrinthine craft, and where they can marvel at the unspoken, intuitive, strangely telepathic communications, understandings and mechanisms that grow between four intensely interactive and habitual players. With the string quartet, the individual sound of each ensemble develops not as a superficial expression of taste, but as a result of subliminal bonds which encrust themselves onto the group and onto the sheer weight of its accumulated labour — a consequence of countless hours of playing together.

The words of Entrückung, however, do not speak only of transportation as adventure; they also point towards loss and loneliness. For when the new world is opened up, the chill of that moment is unappeasable. In Stefan George’s poem, not only are familiar faces of friends gradually left behind to the gloom, but expressions of recognition disappear. Schoenberg obviously shuddered at the prospect of the challenge ahead, of finding an expression equipped to deal with the twentieth century. But can this in any way relate to the writing of a string quartet in and of itself? In the string quartet, is it impossible for the composer to hide, from herself and her limitations? Does the string quartet require a folding into the self?

The answer, maybe, is yes, but only for a while; because the string quartet is also one of our most perfect expressions of liminality; of being one, but also of being many. It expresses a modern, Brechtian type of collective and theatrical experience. In as far as it’s possible to do so in a world run by and for Capital, the string quartet seems able to resist commodification — because the process, the practice of combining these resonating boxes, is as engaging as the works of art that employ them. Fredric Jameson, writing about a Brechtian ‘method’ for our (postmodern) times, highlights the new need for an ‘impure aesthetics’, where practice itself becomes not only a means to an end, but an entertainment in its own right, and where ‘the didactic again slowly reconquers the social respectability [of]… art as the embellishment of life’. Activity folded back into the useful, as one of the central unimpeachable features of knowledge and art, activity in and for itself, standing opposed to the passive reception of digitised streams of pure or purified information.

The workings of the string quartet are gratifyingly exposed, much like the Brechtian ‘open house’ policy where traces of the rehearsal need not be expunged from the performance. And this situation happens in the confident belief that the string quartet audience is never likely to be impressed by illusion. Maybe the string quartet evokes the same kind of technical nakedness as the Lucien Freud portrait, where the practice, down to the brush stroke, the applied clump of paint, is as exposed as the ‘subject’ — sitter and painter alike.

With this in mind, perhaps the common belief that Shostakovich used the string quartet to contain his most private thoughts and feelings can be turned on its head; that it was, in fact, the form’s autonomy that caused the problem, and that the allusions to musical, extra-musical, and all too readily noticed (if not easily decoded) other materials, were used merely to dilute the liberated, purely aesthetic, and therefore dangerous, form.

‘This is where I’m at.’

There’s something more about the quartet: it’s to do with wood, horsehair, varnish and attendant human and animal materiality, muscularity, breath, sweat, not to forget an essential humour. During the JACK Quartet’s debut at London’s Wigmore Hall last summer, its performance of Iannis Xenakis’ Tetras drew a sudden burst of laughter from the audience. But the collective involuntary nervous jitter that you get sometimes at the string quartet concert is of the serious kind, the kind that emits joy at how something can transform itself so completely before your ears, and without any recourse to a magical or illusionistic veil.

This woodiness is also reflected in compositional practice today with the appearance of a kind of arborescence, the creation of networks and labyrinths. Writing in the Musical Times recently about Harrison Birtwistle’s recent quartet Tree of Strings, Arnold Whittal speaks of poetic associations released by the form: ‘That something so evidently organic and generative as a tree is nevertheless subject to decay and disintegration can have powerful aesthetic overtones for Modernists as well as Romantics.’

The string quartet’s woodiness is not irrelevant, simply because it promises always, and necessarily, to overwhelm the more philosophical aspects of the string quartet-as-genre – to keep it rooted, in other words. This is important, not just for the string quartet’s powers of persuasion, its sensuality, but also for its self-sufficiency. Many composers working on a quartet project, and who find that they will put no more than a number on the front of their scores, are acknowledging their position vis-à-vis a cultural phenomenon that needs no words of explanation. It becomes in fact an exercise in self-portraiture, where the thing stands for itself and the creator says, simply, ‘If you’re asking, then this is where I’m at.’ And if it’s a safe haven for individual expression, this is no doubt because of the support structures offered by the parallel group dynamic. What the string quartet does, more than any other line-up, is obliterate hierarchy and to expose the real meanings of individual freedom and collective responsibility, and how these can possibly work together.

And so the string quartet becomes the perfect ensemble to draw together modernity, Modernism and modernisation (the present, the past, and the future), into a critical huddle. This is where the contemporary string quartet naturally resides, its intense futurity always palpable, even if in a strangely inverted, strangely antiquarian, way. It’s not too difficult to image a time, and perhaps not too far away, when a contemporary kind of thinking that is only instrumental, only utilitarian, will need and want to do away with large-scale aesthetic pronouncements, perhaps even with aesthetic concerns of any kind. And if this nightmare scenario were to emerge, it’s possible to imagine the string quartet as not only the last functioning aesthetic social unit, but also as the antediluvian remnants in the wasteland.

The JACK Quartet premieres Peter Rosser’s new string quartet at Belfast’s Metropolitan Arts Centre on Tuesday, 24 April 2012. themaclive.com/whats-on/jack-quartet

Published on 20 April 2012

Peter Rosser (1970–2014) was a composer, writer and music lecturer.

He was born in London and moved to Belfast in 1990, where he studied composition at the University of Ulster and was awarded a DPhil in 1997. His music has been performed at the Spitalfields Festival in London, the Belfast Festival at Queen’s and by the Crash Ensemble in Dublin.

In 2011 the Arts Council acknowledged his contribution to the arts in Northern Ireland through a Major Individual Artist Award. He used this award to write his Second String Quartet, which was premiered in 2012 by the JACK Quartet at the opening concert at Belfast's new Metropolitan Arts Centre (The MAC).

Peter Rosser also wrote extensively on a wide range of music genres, with essays published in The Journal of Music, The Wire, Perspectives of New Music and the Crescent Journal. 

He died following an illness on 24 November 2014, aged 44.

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