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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 4

Redefining the String Quartet: A Marathon Concert of R. Murray Schafer's Seven Quartet

by Philip Ehrensaft / December 1, 1999

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Haydn's pioneering work in defining the string quartet was part of the Enlightenment's revolt against the established aristocratic order. The hierarchy of conductor and musicians in the ensemble, reflecting the hierarchy of the ancien regime, was replaced by a dialogue among four colleagues with equal voices. Two centuries later, innovators like Ligeti demonstrated that the sonic combination of two violins, viola, and cello was a superb vehicle for radically new strategies of composition.

R. Murray Schafer

One of the remarkable quartet cycles in the international post-war repertoire has been created by Canada's R. Murray Schafer. Olga Ranzenhofer, the artistic director of Le Quatuor Molinari and solo violinist for the SMCQ, has organized a marathon concert of Schafer's seven string quartets at Salle Pierre-Mercure on December 11, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Le Quatuor Molinari includes Ranzenhofer and three members of L'Orchestre symphonique de Montreal: violinist Johannes Jansonius, violist David Quinn, and cellist Sylvie Lambert. Roundtables organized at La Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur will be held on December 9 and 10. Schafer, the members of the Molinari Quartet, and Montreal composers and musicologists will talk about each of the seven quartets, as well as Schafer's work as a whole.

Le Quatuor Molinari

The composer's career has been rather iconoclastic. His contacts with Marshal McLuhan had a profound influence on him. When he taught at UBC, he pioneered multidisciplinary research on the ecology of sound, charted new strategies for music education, and invented a "theater of confluence," which united musical, visual and literary arts. All three of these endeavors are inseparable from his accomplishments in music.

Ironically, Schafer did not look forward to writing his commissioned first string quartet, which was published in 1970. But he ended up creating a new form for the quartet, tightly related to his work on the ecology of sound. The First Quartet was awarded the prestigious Prix Arthur Honneger in 1980, making Shaefer one of the few North American composers so honored.

Ranzenhofer sees the seven quartets as one long work, written over 28 years and united both by musical themes and spatial sonics involving the placement and movement of the quartet players. Shaefer's theatre of confluence has also played an essential role in the quartet cycle. Not only is the sixth quartet organized around episodes related to 108 Tai Chi movements, but it is also played while a Tai Chi master executes each of the movements on stage.

The seventh quartet, structured around interaction with a soprano singing from the actual diaries of a schizophrenic, goes further yet towards integrating composition with theater of confluence. Le Quatuor Molinari commissioned this quartet and premiered the concert version at the Strings of the Future Festival. On December 11, the Molinaris will present the theatrical version of this quartet. Each musician will wear a costume of a different color, symbolizing fire, water, the spirit of the forest, light and purity plus illness respectively. Guido Molinari has designed the backdrops. Here the placement and movement of the musicians will be pushed even further than in previous works.

The whole quartet cycle is inseparable from Patria, Shaefer's great, ongoing work in the theatre of confluence. In the composer's own words: "My idea was that two principal characters, a man and a woman, would engage in a search for one another through a labyrinth of different cultures and social twistings almost as if they represented the split halves of the same being... They might return with various guises and different names but the quest for unity and the homeland they were seeking would always be the same." Ranzenhofer points out that the musical theme of the woman, Ariane, is literally the cord of Ariane that most unifies Schafer's seven quartets into one long work.

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