19 April 2017

Ignoring Musical Boxes

The Tana String Quartet have paid a surprise visit to Singapore and gave an unannounced concert last night.  A handful of conservatory staff attended along with a slightly larger handful of students, most of whom are studying composition.  They were told it was a programme of “contemporary” music, which it was not, with the pieces themselves having been written in 1989, 1977 and 1928 respectively – long before most members of the audience had been born.

A question posed to the Quartet afterwards raised the issue of their apparent reputation as performers of “contemporary” music, and their response is well worth reiterating here. 

We do not, the questioner was told, approve of putting music in boxes.  Yes, we do play contemporary music, but we also play the older repertory.  A string quartet which does not play Beethoven is as bad as one which does not play contemporary music.  For us, all music we play is great and that is all.  Why do we want to put music in boxes and give it labels?  If you go to the museum and you look at a picture and do not like it, then you move on to another.  Why do we not do the same thing with music?  Why do we not place it all side by side? 

This was a great response and one which I wish everyone would accept.  By this appallingly banal habit of throwing music into boxes marked “Baroque”, “Classical”, “Romantic”, “Modern”, “Contemporary” and so on, we block it off from reality.  Instead of letting music be part of the great flow of society, continually changing and evolving and never stopping, drawing from the past and reflecting the present, we cut it up into isolated fragments, unrealistically drawing completely incompatible composers together and separating like-minded ones from each other.  Anyone who says “I like Baroque Music” or “I hate contemporary music”, is really saying “I am an imbecile with no understanding and none of the mental capacity to cope with listening to music”.  As the Quartet pointed out, if you play Bartók in the same programme as Haydn, Bartók sounds modern; if you play him in the same programme as Cage, he sounds old. 

And that refreshing level of realism informed their playing in what was, for me, one of the outstanding concerts of the Yong Siew Toh calendar. 

They began with John Cage’s Four.  Eloquently introduced and explained in unpretentious terms, the audience members were advised to shut their eyes and see behind their closed eyelids little lights come on and go out as each member of the quartet played, within a certain time-frame, isolated pitches.  It was a lovely suggestion and worked well, the beautifully framed playing of the pitches creating an atmosphere which was profoundly evocative of the immensity of space.  Rarely has Cage sounded so compellingly romantic – and I recommend all those who, in their imbecilic ignorance dismiss Cage as “contemporary”, with all the hostility they bring to that meaningless label (Cage died 15 years ago so is no more “contemporary” than Beethoven), to listen to Four.

The only work by a living composer in the programme was also the most accessible, tonal and rhythmically direct.  Arvo Pärt’s Fratres is one of the early classics of his “tintinnabulation” style, dating back to 1977.  Originally scored for wind quintet, string quintet and percussion, he subsequently arranged it for violin and piano, cello and piano, four, eight, 12 or 16 cellos (1980), solo violin, strings and percussion (1985) and in 1989 produced the string quartet version played by the Tana Quartet. 

They played it magnificently.  While the second violinist, Ivan Lebrun, held a single note for the entire duration of the piece, he had by far and away the most difficult role.  For to maintain a single note on a violin, unchanging (apart from a gradual dynamic rise and fall) for 10 minutes is a pretty near impossible feat.  He did it, while Jeanne Maisonhaute provided strong percussive sounds from the cello and violist Maxime Desert and first violinist Antoine Maisonhaute provided the meat of the work through instruments tuned significantly out of their normal range.  To describe this as a moving and profoundly spiritual performance is barely to scratch the surface of the mesmerising effect it had on the audience.

They ended with Bartók’s acerbic Third Quartet, composed in 1928 and considered by some to be his greatest single work.  Again an eloquent spoken introduction from Antoine Maisonhaute gave the audience some subtle but valuable listening pointers, and the delivery of the work by the players themselves was little short of astounding.  The quality of tone, the variety of sounds (including, in the central movement, a passage which sounded for all the world like a muted trumpet fanfare) and the sheer commitment of the playing, meant that this was a performance in a million.

It is to be hopped that the Tana String Quartet can bring their refreshing brand of musical realism to Singapore again very soon, but hopefully with a little more notice to allow more than handful of conservatory staff and students to experience what great music making is all about.

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