The Carducci Quartet's Michelle Fleming reports on a thriving chamber music culture
This year, I have, along with my colleagues in the Carducci Quartet, premiered works by six of the UK's most eminent composers. Add to this, recording works by Philip Glass, Alexander Raskatov, Adrian Williams, John McCabe and Michael Berkeley, and you begin to get a good sense of what is happening in the world of contemporary music for the string quartet! And what an exciting time it is. There is a huge variety of sounds and styles, each composer with a unique voice, having drawn inspiration from a wide range of sources, from artists' paintings to insect calls, scenes from the mountains of Tibet to the song of the Australian magpie.
Preparing to perform a new work is a real adventure. It can be a challenging process in many ways but it is an interesting journey which we are always excited to embark upon. As you rip open the envelope full of sheet music, sent from the publisher, you never really know what to expect. You flick through the score, freshly printed, the ink barely dry, and one of many things can happen. Sometimes you sigh with relief – the composer has taken it easy on you and you can immediately get a good idea of what this piece is all about! Sometimes your reaction is one of mild terror – the music before you is mind boggling, notated in what seems to be a new language, and understanding it is going to be like deciphering hieroglyphics! Furthermore, we have on occasion been requested to combine playing our own instruments with playing new ones – Huang Ruo instructs us to use Ting-Shas (Tibetan finger cymbals) throughout The Flag Project, which he composed for our Carnegie Hall debut.
Whatever our initial impression is, we find all of this just fascinating and the concert hall is all the better for having such captivating and thrilling sounds in it. In addition, for us, the musicians, it is most rewarding, having mastered our parts, to take our place on stage and share the music with the audience. It is a responsibility we do not take lightly. This music is new to almost every pair of ears in the hall. The composer is trusting you to perform the music in a committed and convincing way in order to communicate his or her message. Having the opportunity to work alongside the composer allows you to gain invaluable insight into the work and develop an awareness for what is underneath the surface. We really enjoy this aspect of the collaboration.
It is not always easy to have the chance to perform contemporary music with concert presenters becoming increasingly dependant on ticket sales to make concerts viable. We once had a presenter apologise to us, when programming our concert, that anything beyond Dvořák was too challenging for their audience and would be risky in terms of getting people in the door of the hall! As a result, we find it very refreshing when slightly conservative audiences overcome their fear of new music and go home with a positive attitude towards it. Of course, there are many who are strong supporters of contemporary music and we must be thankful to them, and in particular those who make a real difference by commissioning new music.
The string quartet is a medium which affords composers a wealth of possibilities and we count ourselves lucky to be part of this exploration. From the minimalist style to the vast and structurally complex works at the other end of the spectrum, I believe there is room for everything and we are proud to be advocates of much of this fine music. I do hope we can look forward to many more years on this voyage into the unknown!
The Carducci Quartet's new album 'Into the Ravine' featuring string quartets by John McCabe, Michael Berkeley and Adrian Williams is released on December 9. Buy from Amazon