string quartet  (2002)


Forgive the absence of an evocative title.  The work is, in a sense, about the string quartet, about four players, four (by four) strings, the physical nature of sound production on stringed instruments, the interplay between soloist and ensemble, the intersection of bow and string and finger.  The work is, in another sense, about splintering, about destabilizing the string quartet and its conventions (again, of the interaction between players, the interchange of bow hair and string), about disrupting and reorienting the origins and trajectories of expressive, musical energy.

There exists in this work an extreme dislocation between the physical activities of the players and the sounding results of those actions.  The aural surface is a byproduct of the collision of independent, corporeal strata:  ubiquitous quadruple-stop glissandi, frequent changes in finger pressure, rapid (and rhythmically independent) figuration, and intricate bow movements (with constant shifts in bow placement, position, pressure, and speed) combine to create often unpredictable consequences.  Here, physicality drives the musical surface – the harmonic organization of the piece derives not from abstract connections between pitches but instead from a set of carefully mapped hand and finger positions.  In this method of construction, musical matter is related not by sonic exteriors but rather by physical (and even visceral) movements, states of being, energies, and locations.  Moreover, transmutational devices – transposition, inversion, diminution, etc. – are no longer applied to sounding relationships.  Instead, it is the body itself (the body of the performer and its interaction with the body of the instrument) which is transformed and transposed.  In a sense, “material” in this work is not the pitches and rhythms created by the performers but the actions employed to create those sounds.

The structural method of the work is largely influenced by Roman Jakobson ’s research of aphasia, a neurological-linguistic disorder in which an individual’s ability to use and understand speech is severely impaired.  There are two primary aphasia types, as Terrence Hawkes explains:  “In the patient suffering from ‘similarity’ disorder, only the syntagmatic or combinative aspects of language seem to be preserved, and there is a consequent inability to deal in ‘associative’ relationships, such as ‘naming’, the use of synonyms, definitions – i.e., the raw material of metaphors.  However, such patients employ metonymy widely:  they will substitute fork for knife, table for lamp, smoke for fire.  Meanwhile, in the patient suffering from ‘contiguity’ disorder, the reverse situation pertained.  The syntactical rules organizing words into higher units are lost, and the patient’s speech is largely confined to the substitution of words by similarities of a metaphoric nature.”  These two disorders are the primary (anti-)organizational tool in the Quartet.  The physical gestures of the work are distorted, fragmented, and folded in a mimicry of the linguistic dislocation of grammar, syntax, signifiers, and symbols found in aphasics.  There is, in a sense, a rupture of understanding between instruments, a failed attempt to refigure and recombine physical materials and gestures from elsewhere in the piece.  The unpredictable processes of substitution and syntactic disintegration of aphasics serves as the ideal extension of the multi-planar, decoupled performance techniques described above.

The work was commissioned by the Kairos Quartett (to whom it is dedicated with most sincere respect) and the Haupstadtkulturfonds Berlin, with additional funding from the Copying Assistance Program of the American Music Center.