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Saturday, October 11, 2014

NG4 Quartet: Keith Rowe, Anthony Taillard, Emmanuel Leduc & Julien Ottavi – A Quartet For Guitars (Mikroton, 2014) ***

By Chris Haines

A Quartet For Guitars has a neat and tidy compositional structure, which ties in all the elements that provide the focus and the inspiration for the piece, composed by Keith Rowe.  From the technical side of things the starting point for the composition is the third movement “Affetuoso e sostenuto” from Haydn’s String Quartet Op.20 No.1, which the musicians were asked to watch and listen to before performing the piece.  The score that they played from is of a graphic nature, leaving plenty of improvisational decisions for the musicians to make throughout the performance of the piece.  The piece has an open form type structure which reflects in the music-making and the score consists of nine one-minute strips that can be played in any order and are then repeated over until nine minutes has elapsed; this time imposed rule bringing each version to a close.  The piece is scored for four guitars, which are played in the ‘tabletop’ position (lying flat on a table), where they are then treated to prepared objects, bowing the strings and processed through electronic effects.

On the recording there are five different versions each encapsulated by titles such as Ineptitude and Underwhelm, which seem to have been given to the musicians before the performance as a direction for a response to the Haydn quartet.  In fact the whole of this recording is precisely that, an exploration of different responses that move away from the more obvious clichéd ones that would normally be associated with such a piece from the Classical music canon, and a re-examination of what it could mean in the present.

The sounds that are contained within the recording of this piece made me think of Morton Feldman’s early indeterminate works, particularly the solo cello piece.  Not just purely for the obvious graphic score similarity (although the two styles of score are very different) but also for the space in the music where silence is an important component (the first track is a one minute silence, as a sort of thinking space for the Haydn piece as well as being titled after it), and for the sounds generated such as plucked, bowed and harmonic resonances.  Another similarity is what seems to be an emphasis on the moment of each sound as opposed to a musical linearity.  Each sound ‘appears’ as a musical response in it’s own right without it necessarily having to relate to what has gone before or what might appear after.  If this wasn’t intended this is certainly the effect that this performance creates.

This recording sits firmly within the style of European free-improvisation.  I would comment that it also contains a Reductionist-type quality, due to the silence and generally short sounds that are elicited although whether this was purposefully intended or not is another matter.  Compositionally the piece has a strong framework and sets the direction from a theoretical standpoint.  The sounds that are made are invoked by the score rather than governed, as it appears that there is much freedom of decision-making within the musical parameters.  Aesthetically from a listening point of view I can’t help feeling that the compositional idea is much stronger than that of the actual performance and what the music actually ‘sounds’ like.  However, it has a meditative quality about it at times, although the sounds can be quite ‘harsh’ (which is not entirely unexpected as this is the title and direction of an earlier Rowe album) it certainly allows you to think about what the sounds might mean in the context of their projected responses.  On the whole this is an interesting concept that doesn’t quite translate into the performance of the piece.