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I consider Three Pieces for String Quartet to be more abstract in nature, speaking only loosely of specific ideas. The string quartet is treated as a unit, the sum of its four constituent parts, rather than concentrating on each individual instrument. I also attempt to use new techniques as an integral part of the musical language of the work.
Over a series of months in 2012 I observed one of my sons starting the process of going through puberty. This observation reawakened in me reminiscences of when I myself experienced puberty many years ago. I recalled the awkward overconfidence, shy gregariousness, arrogant self-doubt and numerous other paradoxes and emotional oxymorons that led to one of the most confusing times of my life, echoing something I once heard about this developmental stage: “Before puberty you look at the world, and during puberty the world looks at you”. Perhaps being between these two worlds – the adult world and the child world – instigates all these contradictions. Add in the plethora of hormones altering body shape, and an increasing awareness of one’s sexuality and social niche, no wonder all the answers have to be black or white! These three pieces speak loosely of this period of growing up. ‘Exhuberant Monomania’ speaks of those new ideas that seem so exciting and that soon become obsessions (my son would spend all day fishing and catching possums, while at the same age I couldn’t get enough of music). ‘Recalcitrant Truculence’ speaks of the result of constant introspective questioning; answering questions in monosyllabic grunts (although I admit that my son can be very eloquent and charming at times). ‘Mercurial Nostalgia’ speaks of the conflict of simultaneously pining for the simplicity of childhood and of needing independence.
In order to extend their musical language, many composers push the boundaries of various musical parameters. Although not a new device, quarter tones or other microtonal possibilities are one aspect of composition that is currently being explored. In addition to quarter tones and microtones, Three Pieces for String Quartet also employs many standard string techniques such as open strings, harmonics and sul ponticello. These are developed as part of the material of the work as opposed to additional colours. Quarter tones are difficult to produce accurately or reliably. Woodwind instruments can use anomalous or irregular fingering (although these may differ from instrument to instrument depending on the maker). String instruments, however, have great difficulty in producing accurate quarter tones since the distance between adjacent tones is very small, especially for pitches played further up the fingerboard, and especially for the violin. Quarter tones and microtones can be used for a variety of reasons and in a variety of contexts; each of the movements in Three Pieces for String Quartet explores quarter tones or microtones in a different way. ‘Exuberant Monomania’ uses quarter tones predominantly as an intermediary pitch between adjacent semitones, rendering fast, almost glissando-like movements. At other times, the second, third and fourth fingers stretch out on the fingerboard in increasingly wide intervals. The specific (equal-tempered and quarter tone) pitches are written, but only as a rough indication – absolute accuracy is not essential for the overall sound gesture to be successful. ‘Recalcitrant Truculence’ uses microtones to play with tension as pitches glissando away from, and often return to, an equal tempered pitch. Again, absolute accuracy in pitching the quarter tones is not necessary in this movement. ‘Mercurial Nostalgia’ achieves accurate and reliable quarter tones by a novel means: some players tune strings down by a quarter tone, with the piece using only open strings or natural harmonics. The resulting series of pitches is derived from both the harmonic series of the normally tuned open strings and from the harmonic series of the scordatura open strings. Interestingly, the piece sounds “out of tune” and odd at the beginning, but not towards the end when the listener’s ear has grown accustomed to the new series of pitches. This movement is performed last so that the quartet need only retune their instruments once. Both ‘Exuberant Monomania’ and ‘Mercurial Nostalgia’ lead the listener on an obvious and direct musical journey, but ‘Recalcitrant Truculence’ takes an unexpected twist, ending in an almost irreconcilably and incongruously different sound world from that of the beginning.
I. Exuberant Monomania
II. Recalcitrant Truculence
III. Mercurial Nostalgia