BIFEM: Argonaut String Quartet, 4x4x4

Review by Angus McPherson

‘Did he know he was going to make this piece crazy?’ A child’s voice comes through my ear-piece over the sounds of the Argonaut Quartet performing Christophe Bertrand’s Quatuor No.1. The ear-piece and radio are part of Soundtracks, an art intervention by St Martins Youth Arts Centre providing live commentary to Bertrand’s music by young artists between the ages of eight and twelve. Bassi, Satchmo and Anh are my commentators and they guide me through the quartet, much like a DVD commentary (though less intrusive).

Before the quartet commences, the children explain that they know three things about Quator No.1: that it was written by Christophe Bertrand, that Bertrand died by suicide at the age of 29 and that there were originally nine movements, but two have been lost. The knowledge of Bertrand’s suicide, a heavy and complex topic for such young children, obviously colours their interpretation.

The images they use to describe the music are highly evocative: the pizzicato of the first movement is the ‘pitter patter of rain’ and as it intensifies it prompts a story of being caught in an out-of-the-blue hail storm. The ending of the movement is compared to a snowball rolling downhill that seems like ‘it’s going to explode or collapse, but when it gets to the bottom it just sits there’. The fourth movement, full of droning strings and pitch slides, sounds like ‘wolves howling’ at the edge of a cold, dark forest, and the slow glissandos and microtonal shifts in the sixth movement are ‘like a baby crying’. The music of the melancholy fifth movement sounds like it ‘keeps reaching and falling down’.

Interspersed with these responses to the music, the children tell me the questions they would like to ask the composer, such as: ‘What was his first memory of a connection to music?’ as they try to put together ‘the pieces of the puzzle that would help us understand him’. In answer to the question ‘what does it mean?’ they sadly conclude, ‘we can only guess’.

There are also lighter moments. The actions of the players in the dance-like second movement resemble ‘yanking a tooth out’ and Judith Hamann’s cello technique in the third inspires a story of whisking cream to have with strawberries. Members of the quartet are compared to wound up ‘mechanical toys nodding their heads and moving their arms’. The children’s observations of the music are remarkably astute, drawn from their own experiences. Independently moving parts are compared to students packing up their bags at the end of a day at school, some are faster and some slower, some have more things to pack up, some have less.

As the drama of the music builds to its climax in the final movement, static fuzzes through my earpiece and I only catch the words ‘storm brewing’ and ‘really wild’. The end of the quartet fades away slowly, ‘like dust blown off a surface, leaving nothing’.

The concert had begun with Kimmo Kuokkala’s Kirvis, a work of bouncing bows, scratchy rustlings, ending on a pure crystalline high note.

The world premiere of New Zealander Dylan Lardelli’s Mapping, an inlay follows the Bertrand, and gradually unfolds like a landscape coming into view, recorded in precise detailed lines. The meditative sound world is made up of gentle dissonance, dull hisses, papery harmonics and warbling strings.

4x4x4 finishes with Stefano Gervasoni’s Six lettres à l’obscurité (und zwei Nachrichten) or Six Letters to Obscurity (and Two Stories). The obscure letters, one for each movement, spell the name Claire (the deliberate irony is that this also means ‘clear’ in French). The story movements are inserted after the letters ‘l’ and ‘i’. The music swings from atmospheric noises to upbeat folky passages and the movement ‘r’ stands for ricecar, Gervasoni quoting Girolamo Frescobaldi’s Recercar chromatico post il Credo for organ in an arrangement where the edges are frayed with distorted timbres and shrieks.

The Bertrand quartet with art intervention from St Martins was certainly the most affecting work on the program. While the commentary distracted from full immersion in the Argonaut Quartet’s performance, it did provide a fascinating insight into the response of children to music. Wise and empathetic, the commentators coloured my own response to Bertrand’s quartet, and added layers of meaning and depth to the experience. That said, the sudden (if altered) tonality of Frescobaldi’s ricecar in the Gervasoni provoked an unexpectedly powerful frisson, coming at the end of a weekend full of exploratory music.

Argonaut String Quartet
4x4x4
The Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Bendigo Bank Theatre
6 September 2015
Angus McPherson

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