Tag Archives: Argonaut String Quartet

BIFEM: Argonaut String Quartet, Dead Oceans

Jason Tavener Photography BIFEM 2017 DEAD OCEANS_MG_9959
The Argonaut String Quartet in Dead Oceans. Jason Tavener photography.

Review by Matthew Lorenzon

Each year BIFEM reserves box-office takings to commission new works for the following year. By commissioning works from Australian and international composers, BIFEM has become a globally recognised hub for new music. This year’s closing concert foregrounded BIFEM’s culture-building mission by juxtaposing world premieres from the emerging Australian composers Caterina Turnbull and Samuel Smith with Australian premieres by Clara Iannotta and Anahita Abbasi. The Argonaut String Quartet handled the challenges thrown at them with apparent ease, whether Turnbull and Smith’s palettes of extended string techniques or Iannotta and Abbasi’s blocks of styrofoam, aluminium foil, and desk bells.

Last year Turnbull participated in the Monash University Composers’ Workshop at BIFEM. Her string quartet attracted the attention of the festival organisers and ultimately a commission from Julian Burnside, QC. Burnside’s support gave Turnbull the opportunity to return to her short piece, extending and refining it into a series of tableaux of delicately layered instrumental effects. In Eminulos (a latin adjective describing a slight projection), masses of bird-like chirps, imitative call and response, booming down bows, tremolos, harmonics, and whispering circular bowing tumble into one another like folded geological layers. Turnbull’s heterophonic effects seem to augment the string quartet into a string orchestra.

Those familiar with Smith’s music will recognise his dynamic musical gestures in Dead Oceans, one of this year’s BIFEM Box Office Commissions. Throughout the work’s 18 minutes these gestures are built into breathtakingly dense and fluid textures. Growling notes evaporate into indeterminately high harmonics; glissandi careen around the instruments, turning corners with screeches of gritty bow pressure. From masses of mercurial lines emerge staggered legato bowing from Elizabeth Welsh and Erkki Veltheim’s violins. These rafts of timbral respite drift atop Graeme Jennings and Judith Hamann’s busy viola and cello parts like flotsam bobbing on the ocean. The work’s general movement from dissonance to consonance lends a sense of nostalgia or repose to the second half. The bobbing legato tones sound like parts of buildings floating on the ocean after being swept out to sea by a storm. The work’s environmental program is suggested by its subtext, “I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans” from Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”. But Smith insists, like Dylan, that it is just that, a subtext.

Clara Iannotta’s A Failed Entertainment was similarly not inspired by the dark comedy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for which “A Failed Entertainment” was the working title. A Failed Entertainment is the beginning of the composer’s process of exploring longer and more complex forms, which Wallace achieved with extended, digressionary footnotes. A Failed Entertainment is a similarly masterful combination of finessed writing and awkward interruptions, including “footnotes” played by stamping on desk bells.

Abbasi’s Distorted Attitudes IV – Facile Synthesis shines a spotlight on the timbral possibilities of the cello, which the rest of the quartet frames and accompanies while drawing nearer to its timbre. In the beginning, Hamann ceremonially strums the prepared cello with wide movements of her arm, the aluminium foil between the strings emitting a deep and resonant buzz like the chains on the back of a Persian daf drum. Hamann’s uneven, declamatory rhythms break the tension of the other instruments’ groaning and creaking overbowed strings. Sometimes the cello moves closer to the sound of the other instruments, as when Hamann flicks the edge of the cello with the hair of the bow (a swashbuckling move as effective to see as to hear). Meanwhile, the other instruments emit gentle “puffs” by bowing the sides of their instruments. At other times the other instruments move closer to the cello’s sound, as when the viola’s strings are prepared with blu-tac to change their pitch and timbre. The piece is just one of a series of “Distorted Attitudes” exploring distorted social perspectives and social attitudes towards distortion. I hope we have the chance to hear the rest of them live.

At the end of the day, who doesn’t love a string quartet? It’s an approachable genre that can gently prise open even the most unadventurous ears. The Argonaut String Quartet’s deft execution of microtones, extended techniques, and instrument preparations provides Australian composers and listeners with an invaluable musical resource. With the Argonaut String Quartet, everybody can rest assured that bespoke pitch systems will be accurately reproduced, while non-traditional performance techniques will be treated with the utmost musical sensitivity.

Dead Oceans
Argonaut String Quartet
Capital Theatre
The Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
3 September 2017

Caterina Turnbull, Eminulos; Samuel Smith, Dead Oceans; Anahita Abbasi, Distorted Attitudes IV – Facile Synthesis; Clara Iannotta, A Failed Entertainment

2016BIFEM: Argonaut String Quartet, Glossolalia

©Jason Tavener Photography GLOSSOLALIA_MG_1692
Argonaut Quartet, Glossolalia, Jason Taverner Photography

Review by Zoe Barker

The back-to-back presentation of four string quartets which rely near exclusively on extended string techniques is perhaps a risk, lest audiences tire of the continuous glissandi and harmonics which have become almost a cliché in modern works of the medium. However, the finely crafted compositions presented by the Argonaut Quartet each worked on a level beyond using these techniques arbitrarily, demonstrating different approaches to writing in this idiom.

David Chisholm’s Bound South opened tentatively with a delicate sequence of extended techniques shared across the quartet. A soft tapping of strings with the wood of the bow provided the percussive backdrop to the harmonic glissandi and soft tremolo gestures which each player executed in turn. This sequence formed the basis of the work’s material, gradually extending and developing as the instruments overlapped. The overall effect was icy and fragile, reflecting the work’s title and positioning itself in complete opposition to Chisholm’s flashy double concerto premiered the previous evening.

A point of sudden agitation burst from the viola, seemingly unable to continue with the glacial pace of development. Joined by the second violin for the shortest moment, both quickly retreated and continued with the work’s established slow trajectory. This fleeting release of built-up tension seemed to foreshadow a coming section in a more agitated style, yet this was never reached. Instead, Chisholm continued to taunt and whet the appetite with intensity only built within a narrow schema. A dynamic peak was reached towards the end with three tremolo chords played in unison, before a return to the short fragments of the opening material, this time presented with more cohesion.

Through Empty Space continued the delicate sound world established by Chisholm, opening with all four parts playing glassy pure harmonics. Mexican composer Sergio Luque scored much of the work in a close range, blending the sounds of the four string instruments to make the quartet act as one entity. Pitch material played with semitone dissonances spread over an octave, sliding in and out of consonance. The work embarked on a smooth descent through the empty spaces left in the scoring, with Luque demonstrating immense restraint in seeing his musical idea through.

The smooth veneer of the work’s surface was only momentarily broken in a fragment which called for bouncing the bow across the strings. It was almost unexpected to hear the conventionally bowed long tones, but their presentation without vibrato ensured that they worked within the established context. Ending the work the viola and cello traded these long gliding strokes, emerging and disappearing from the violins’ atmospheric bowing over the bridge.

The muted bouncing opening of Chilean composer Pedro Alvarez’s Etude Oblique I immediately announced a shift in gear, moving away from the highly austere first half of the program while still presenting similar sounds and techniques. The pace of development in Etude Oblique was the fastest of any of the works presented so far in the concert, and the dialogue between the instruments was the most contested. Agitation and flashes of urgency were hinted at in the wailing high pitched glissandi and the ricochet bowing gesture which formed the basis of the work’s rhythmic fragments, but yet again these remained contained within a small dynamic structure.

Erkki Veltheim’s Glossolalia was a natural conclusion to the concert. Establishing some violent string playing from the outset, this was the opportunity to fully release the tension so finely built up throughout the program. Reflecting the work’s title, the score was often frenzied, jumping from one idea to the next in rapid succession, with techniques used to create sounds far removed from the traditional capabilities of a string quartet. Aggressive bowing south of the bridge created great noise tones, and the tapping of the bridge with the base of the bow produced a satisfyingly resonant percussive sound. Veltheim fully explored the bass range of the cello, requiring some grungy playing from Judith Hamman who skillfully tuned down during the performance.

The physicality of playing a string instrument suddenly burst to the fore in Glossolalia. Shedding the high control required for the light bowing and isolated gestures in the other works, Hamman’s acrobatic glissandi and Veltheim’s dynamic leading providing a welcome visual change. It was in this final work that the arrangement of the quartet, all four facing inwards on the corners of a square platform, made sense artistically; it was a delight to watch chains of reactions set off by fragments and move around the players.

In a different context, Glossolalia could have come across as a little too uncontrolled and wild, given its length and jerky movement between ideas. But within this program, it seemed to be the continuation along a smooth path, Veltheim’s composition ultimately fulfilling the hints of outburst promised by Chisholm, Luque and Alvarez. The Argonaut Quartet is lucky to have three such versatile and experienced upper string players in Veltheim, Graeme Jennings and Elizabeth Walsh, who rotated roles throughout the performance to play to individual strengths. Together with Hamman’s cello playing, the Quartet is a fine interpreter of new music.

The Argonaut String Quartet
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Bendigo Town Hall
3 September 2016

David Chisholm, Bound South; Sergio Luque, Through Empty Space; Pedro Alvarez, Etude Oblique I; Erkki Veltheim, Glossolalia

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
The Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Bendigo Bank Theatre
6 September 2015
Angus McPherson