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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 8

Readings by the Arditti Quartet Experience and inspiration

by Lucie Renaud / May 1, 2001

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At the end of May, string quartet lovers will flock to the third edition of the Strings of the Future Festival, held biennially in Ottawa. Once again, the international string quartet festival will host a series of readings of new works written especially for the occasion by four young Canadian composers, picked by a jury of three Canadian specialists. The Arditti Quartet, instrumental in shaping string quartet writing in the last 25 years, will read through works by Derek Charke (from Vancouver), Wolf Edwards (from Montreal), Christian Elliot (from Ottawa) and Shange Fage (from Calgary). One of these promising composers will walk away with a “Special Promise” award, a prize of $2000, and the assurance that his work will be performed during the festival’s 2003 season.

Quartet founder Irvine Arditti feels strongly about the need to continue the readings.: “It is obviously both advantageous for young composers to have their works read by the Arditti and important for us to keep in contact with students and emerging composers in the new music world,” he told La Scena Musicale. “Often the Arditti Quartet is associated with complicated and experimental music. It is very useful in this case for both parties to give these young composers the experience of hearing their music rehearsed and performed, and to give us the opportunity of assisting and offering our many years of experience in this field.” Gary Hayes, CBC music broadcaster, composer, and member of the jury, also stresses the importance of these workshops. “The composers have to defend themselves up to a certain point,” he points out. “One hopes that the young composers will take the spirit of the Arditti Quartet’s comments and realize that what they learned from the experience could really help them.” He said the jury had no trouble finding four outstanding works in this year’s crop. “A third of the 18 works had to be looked at more carefully,” he explains. “Once the interest had peaked, we had to decide if the work was strong enough to be performed by the Arditti. They are so professional that they will give the piece as much attention as a celebrated ensemble would to a Haydn quartet.”

The Arditti prepares very much as they would for any other quartet, with each player looking at his own part and the full score, studying it carefully. But the players’ approach is slightly different. “If we were preparing for a concert performance, we would give the work more rehearsal,” says the first violinist. “Sometimes it is interesting in workshops to show the composer how difficult their music is, and therefore more is gained if we don’t rehearse.”


Looking for challenges

The Arditti Quartet doesn’t shy away from challenges. Several hundred string quartets have been written for them since 1974 : works by Cage — who once said, “Other string quartets can’t hold a candle to the Ardittis.!” — Carter, Glass, Kurtag, Pärt, Xenakis, and Stockhausen. They performed the controversial Helicopter String Quartet aboard four helicopters at the 1995 Holland Festival. Arditti still finds the creative process fascinating. “Although we usually know the language of most composers who are writing for us, one can never predict what will happen,” he says. “Each learning process is usually a stimulating journey.; we often have to overcome many hurdles before we arrive at the first post, the premiere. And then on through this performance experience to develop an interpretation that we will be identified with, and through which others will judge the quality of the music. Whether the work is on the ‘cutting edge’ or whether it fits into a style of composition already explored, its strength comes from the composer’s imagination—his capacity to thrill and intrigue the listener.” Arditti adds, “The composer’s ability to grasp a coherent form is probably the most important skill needed to capture the listener, although form today has a different meaning from that of more classical music.”


Young composers

Wolf Edwards, one of the young composers, whose second quartet will be performed by the Arditti, is overwhelmed. “They’re the tops in contemporary music, one of the most important string quartets,” he insists. “I’ve listened to all their CDs.; I have great reverence for their work. I actually had a twelve-tone piece read by the Arditti five years ago. After a rehearsal, I just walked up to Irvine Arditti and asked the quartet to play my piece. They very nicely agreed to do it.” He admits that he had them in mind this time when writing the piece chosen. “The space-based work travels through different sonic stages,” he adds. “Its inspiration is more in the Bartók, Ligeti or Xenakis tradition than twelve-tone. Heavy rhythmic parts contrast with sustained notes, but I tried to stay away from unreasonable writing.” The work, shaped in an arc form, “isn’t brutally difficult”, he says, “though the centre is more difficult to find”. Edwards already has another string quartet in progress and hopes that his current piece will take on a life of its own.

Christian Elliot, aged 16, is the youngest of the winning composers. The son of a classical and jazz guitarist, home-schooled for most of his young life, music has always held a special place in his heart. As both a pianist and a cellist, he senses certain crosscurrents between his composing and performing. He feels his cello playing influences his writing, which in turn influences his piano playing, making him more aware of the work’s structure. The process of composing continues to puzzle him, although he is already a winner in another composition competition and the author of a new work for flute, recently included in the program of the Royal Conservatory of Music. “It is quite special to be able to express myself in that way,” he says. “When I start a piece, it is somewhat complete already. I just have to decipher ideas, let them out, find ways to develop a motif.” In his opinion, the most important goal is always communication among the composer, the musician, and the public.” His favourite composers include Ravel, Shostakovich, Bartók, and Bach “for his organization skills and his incredible natural sense of line.” His quartet has a melody interwoven with recurring motifs for which his cello training came in handy. “I used the string instruments to their full capacities, with all the textures they can convey,” he noted. Elliot has just finished a piece for cello and piano and still can’t decide which part to perform.

“It seems there was never a better time to explore the possibilities of contemporary music writing,” concludes Arditti. “More than ever now there are opportunities for composers to have their works performed and to build on their own experiences, as well as learn from the pool of knowledge of what others are doing. I firmly believe that while there are groups prepared to take on the challenge of performing new works, composers will continue to supply this demand. After all, music of quality has an indefinite life-span.”


The Festival will take place May 21 to 27. Info: (613) 232-5000 <www.stringsofthefuture.com>.

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