GEORGES LENTZ - composer
Caeli enarrant III
About 'String Quartet(s)'
from 'Mysterium' ("Caeli enarrant..." VII)
Installation work for 8-channel wav. soundtrack, with an original painting by Kathleen Petyarre (Untitled 2007, 165 x 120 cm, acrylic on Belgian linen) (2000-2014)
In parallel with my work on big orchestral pieces, I have been drawn in the last ten or so years to that most sublime and demanding of musical genres, the string quartet – an attraction which has led me to write many quartet fragments over the last few years, as well as listening with great interest to numerous string quartets by other contemporary composers. It may be that, working with orchestras (often a rather conservative institution these days), I have felt an urge to put aside, for a change, all the financial, technical and time constraints often associated with that institution and to allow myself complete musical freedom in a totally different setting. This reminded me of the string quartet sketches on my desk - and of my disappointment, it has to be said, with many of the string quartet compositions I’ve been hearing. It seemed to me that most new works, including those with live electronics, were exploring only a fraction of the sound possibilities opened up by current technology, and that one ought to try to approach the genre from a completely different angle. I therefore decided not to aim for a live performance, but to work on a piece that would exist as a recording only, with a special focus on sounds and structures that would be impossible to achieve in a live setting. I also intentionally wanted to avoid any interactive element, so fashionable these days in connection with all things digital. Perhaps it was partly because of my decision to limit myself to the fixed and linear form of a pre-recorded work that I decided to call the new composition a STRING QUARTET, rather than just an ‘installation with string quartet sounds’. I can certainly see how some people would argue that it is not a string quartet. I maintain that it is.
From the 1960s onwards, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould proposed the notion of a recording not simply as a documentation of a piece of music or a concert, but, ideally at least, as a work of art in its own right. Today, in popular music, post-production is a commonplace process in the development of a new album, as it aims to create new sounds and mix them into the musical texture (these experiments and processes are nothing new of course and, in popular music too, go back all the way to the 1960s and to concept albums such as the Beatles' 'Sergeant Pepper' for ex.). With these things in mind, I approached a wonderful young Sydney string quartet group, The Noise, and started recording, over many hours, some of the fragments from my desk with these very enthusiastic and open-minded musicians. The Noise often work with contact microphones and pedals in order to transform their sound in various ways. Improvisation is another strength of these four musicians, and it came to the fore in our recording sessions. We worked with anything from high quality to very poor mics, in very dry and inferior acoustics all the way to professional environments (the concert hall stage of the Sydney Opera House). We either placed the mics very far from the sound source, or put them so close they occasionally touched the vibrating string! In this way we achieved a multitude of different sounds even at the recording stage. The hiss or rumble of poor microphones or distorted recording levels too, after initially being discarded, came to be seen as an interesting and very usable part of the sound material. Through all this, one thing became clear – the RECORDING, both as a process and as a medium, with all its strengths and weaknesses, became in and of itself one of the overriding themes of the new composition.
In a next phase, these long recording sessions were transformed, fragmented, distorted, looped, etc etc via laptop. Through this process, the musicians and I found many exciting sonic and structural possibilities opening up to us – things that would simply not be possible with a live string quartet on a stage. Even the shortcomings of the editing software, which was clearly developed for far simpler and more commercial purposes, yielded unpredictable, but sometimes exciting and eminently usable results. There was a CD with part of our recordings which I had lost and then found again totally scratched – and I discovered that the digital glitch caused by the scratched surface produced some very interesting sounds. In short, an exciting creative process was starting to develop which fluctuated between compositional control and a sense of letting go, between improvisation and written out music, between purely rational planning and the many surprises we encountered along the way. Because of the extreme roughness of some of the sounds, the conscious inclusion of ‘lo-fi’ techniques, and the improvised or seemingly improvised nature of some of the musical gestures, I started comparing this process more and more to a graffiti wall, and I still like to think of the final result as a gigantic sound wall sprayed with audio graffiti.
Because of the length of the initial recordings if nothing else, it became clear early on that this would be an extremely long work. Undoubtedly, some will see the final length of six hours as downright non-sensical. For me, on the other hand, it seemed like an exciting challenge to write a piece of music which, because of its sheer length, could not be taken in all at once – no listener is expected to sit through six hours straight! I simply attempted to create a work of art which one could “live with” – i.e. of which one could take in five minutes or thirty minutes here and there, in the knowledge that “there is much more”. To me it is music which one can explore and get to know bit by bit, over months - perhaps years. I wanted to take on the huge challenge of thinking and structuring sounds on that kind of very unwieldy time scale, and see if I could mould it into a logical and, importantly, an emotionally satisfying musical argument. I see an analogy to a STARRY NIGHT SKY, of which one might only see a tiny fragment, in the knowledge that this fragment is part of something infinitely more vast and complex and points to the (dare I use such an unfashionable word) the sublimity of something far grander than us.
Over the years my reading of William Blake’s Prophetic Books, and especially his apocalyptic masterpiece Jerusalem, has only deepened my infatuation with the 'sublime'. It therefore seemed increasingly unavoidable to include Blake in some form or shape in the emerging composition – I literally had his poetic sounds in my ears day and night. In the final version this happens in two key spots of String Quartet(s). Besides the anecdotal diary character of such quotes, I saw some creative tensions opening up here – between the difficulty of comprehending Blake’s demanding poem and the difficulty in grasping the polyphonic layering of the spoken texts; between broken text fragments and fully read-out passages ; between the varying time layers (Romanticism vs 21st century) and an almost mystical timelessness; between a compositional technique reminiscent of Glenn Gould’s famous radio documentaries (Solitude Trilogy, 1967-77) with its layering of voices on the one hand, and a purely instrumental sound on the other.
I do not intend to explain the title String Quartet(s) too specifically or narrowly. I see many possible meanings in the bracketed plural form of the title and want to admit them all. Perhaps I should mention the plurality of short fragments of classical quartet compositions (Haydn, Beethoven, Bartók, Lachenmann…). They are of course a reverence to some great quartet composers of the past and present. I see them, however, also as an indication of the increasing fragmentation of our current digitalized world, an indication of its lack of context and authenticity, its plurality, its simultaneity, its non-committal randomness. Any sense of unity can, at best, be gained through getting some distance, as one would by stepping back from a pointillist painting.
‘Pointillist’ is a term one could perhaps also apply to the artwork which accompanies and completes the soundtrack of String Quartet(s), an original 2007 painting (acrylic on linen 1650 x 1200 mm) by the eminent Aboriginal artist Kathleen Petyarre – somewhat incorrectly so of course, as ‘pointillist’ is a term that comes from a Western art discourse and probably has very little meaning in the context of Australian indigenous art. The painting is in my own private collection and, just like Blake’s Jerusalem, has been my steady companion during my work on String Quartet(s). Hanging on the wall facing my work space, I literally had it constantly before my eyes. I therefore do not see it as mere ‘decoration’ of the musical sounds, but an integral part of String Quartet(s). The canvas is in constant dialogue with the music. The aforementioned complexity, the starry night sky analogy, the four obvious lines in the painting which I see as a symbol of the four string instrument lines (along with a number of intriguing, more hidden lines), a sense of spirituality which in Aboriginal culture has retained a freshness and authenticity it has often lost in Western cultures, a feeling of endless space going far beyond the edge of the canvas – these are all things I see in Kathleen Petyarre’s painting. They also happen to be the very things that always influence my music.
G. L. © 2014
* View the original Kathleen Petyarre painting that forms an integral part of String Quartet(s).