Sonorities, tiny details, process

I’m nearing the end (finally! I hear you squeak) of my string quartet based on Rothko’s Seagram Murals. It now has a proper title – Red on Black on Maroon – and I’m working on the final section and giving serious thought to how I’m going to finish it.

One of the most important things I’m considering at the moment, both in terms of material for the final section, and in terms of adding shape and interest to the parts I’ve already composed, is different qualities of sound. It’s the truly glorious thing about writing for string instruments – the vast array of sounds you can get from a single instrument. There are so many more options than just bowed and plucked and lately I’ve been trying to build a palette of sounds to use across the work, with particular consideration for the final section.

The piece divides roughly into three sections, each around 4 minutes long. The first section is almost entirely chordal, the second has a lot more meandering melodic material, but the third – which represents viewing the paintings from Rothko’s preferred distance of 18 inches – deals in the incredible detail you can see when you’re that close to a Rothko work. The first view of the Seagram Murals is that they are incredibly simple – each one a big block of colour on top of a different big block of colour – but once you’re up close, you can see that neither block of colour is actually just one colour. Rothko’s technique involved building up layers and layers and layers of subtly differentiated shades, and differing types of paint too, which gives the surface a depth and detail which is hard to discern from a distance.

So the final section is about tiny, delicate details, all related to the chordal and melodic material that’s gone before in the piece, but each moment more complex and more independent than in either previous section.

So, like I said, I’ve been building a palette of sounds. I started out with just ‘normal’ bowing, tremolando bowing and some pizzicato, and I always knew I wanted to use harmonics in the final section. Recently, though I’ve added in non-vibrato sounds, bowing sul ponticello and sul tasto, flautando (as a nod to the harmonics in the final section while reserving that particular tonal colour & pitch extreme for the end), some use of mutes, overbowing and – finally – bowing the wood of the instrument. I think this is where I’m drawing a line with the sounds.

I wanted a broad range of sounds, because harmonically the piece is very static. I don’t work with traditional functional harmony even though I write vaguely tonal music, and while I’m sure someone who likes to think that way could deconstruct it all and show… something, that’s not something that interests me at all. The purpose of writing this piece was always about creating something much longer than anything I’d written before, about learning how to stretch out material, and I’ve found that for me the most interesting way to stretch this material is to address the texture of the piece and see what textural and temporal things I can do to make my (static) material interesting over a 12-15 minute timespan. So far I think I’m doing OK and my players seem to agree with me, which is nice 🙂

There have been two key influences in developing this palette of sounds. The first is Janacek’s second string quartet, ‘Intimate Letters’, which Deirdre Gribbin pointed me to during the brief series of lessons I had with her. I’m enjoying the Emerson Quartet‘s very vigorous rendition of this piece at the moment. Janacek uses sul ponticello very effectively in this piece, and the glassy sound was just the contrast I needed for a certain section of the piece, and from there, it’s proved a useful sound elsewhere. From using sul ponticello, I contrasted it with sul tasto in places, expanding the palette in a different direction.

The second influence is a series of great videos being produced by British composer Edd Caine, called ‘Let’s Compose… A string quartet’. In these videos, Edd is tracing the evolution of his work on a quartet he’s writing based on a cycle trip in Italy and he is deriving his musical material from various aspects of this subject matter. In particular, I was very taken with the ‘breathing’ sounds he describes and demonstrates on the cello in the third episode, created by bowing on the edge of the instrument, with different pitches being produced by bowing in different areas, allowing for in/out breathing sounds. The part about the breathing is from about 3:10 in this video, with specific discussion of the sound from about 7:45:

Given the focus of Red on Black on Maroon on the pulsing phenomenon that is experienced when you sit looking at the Seagram Murals for any extended period of time, I’m feeling that the occasional use of these sounds will give a more organic feel to the progression of the music, especially in parts where I’ve been feeling that pitched material gives too precisely musical a realisation of what I want, when what I really want is more of a bodily sensation. I do hope that makes sense… I’m using them in quite a different way, I think, than Edd seems to be aiming for – more of a slow organic gesture than aiming to evoke actual breathing.

Assuming that (as you’re reading this!) you’re interested in compositional process, I really recommend you take the time to watch Edd’s videos. Yes, some of them are fairly long in internet-time (so far they’re all over 10 minutes), but the ideas are really interesting and the slower-paced earlier episodes also give a great insight into the time-consuming nature of coming up with ideas and working things out. They also show a much more mathematical process than I’ve ever used, and I’m finding that really interesting. I can’t wait to hear how his piece turns out – or mine, for that matter…