‘Lespugue Venus’ (26-24,000 years old, carved mammoth ivory) – I was transfixed by this beautiful statuette in the Ice-Age art show at the British Museum. It’s in a cabinet right at the start of the exhibition and it took me ages to tear myself away from its radiant presence. According to Elizabeth Wayland Barber, this is one of the earliest representations of spun thread – the female figure is shown with a ‘skirt’ made of twisted fibre frayed at the ends hanging from below her hips. I’m currently reading about various cultural uses of nets, about weaving, twisting fibre and ‘the knot’ as a ‘technology for thinking’, connected to a new string quartet I’m writing.
I last wrote a string quartet ten years ago for the Kairos Quartett commissioned by the Festival d’Automne à Paris which is entitled In the Shadow’s Light (2004). I described the forms and the sound world of that work as being like sensations filtered through different kinds of veils: ‘These veils might be experienced as a tangle of submerged pathways through which one senses the movement of creatures on the surface above; perhaps as a trance of saturated light coming from a place beyond, or as oscillating interference patterns created by intersecting lines and arising from the coupling and uncoupling of sonic elements.’ The composition of ‘veils’ in that quartet was a meditation on death, loss and disintegration, on memory and sensation becoming unmoored from the body. I recently returned to listening to that quartet and now find enough distance to notice more clearly some of its more objective features: the ways in which it explores effects of shimmer and different degrees of transparency in the layering of sound surfaces as well as an idea of a fraying of the ‘weave’ of sounds into multiple threads which are then subjected to more chaotic entanglements.
My new string quartet continues aspects of the earlier exploration. Technically, part of my focus is on the naturally occurring micro-variations in the texture of a single bow stroke and how these irregularities can be amplified through a recursive shuttling back and forth over a ‘glitch’ in the sonic material. The physics of the action of a bow exciting a string on a violin or ‘cello can be described as a series of glitching or ‘stick-slip‘ movements. The rosin on the bow provides varying amounts of ‘grip’ or static friction that is counterpoised with the ‘slip’ or kinetic friction provided by the player’s movement of the bow. I am working with playing techniques that create high static friction by reconfiguring the set-up of instruments through retuning and by exploiting complex combinations of transverse movements against different torsional qualities inherent in the strings.
The music is made up of the acoustic articulation of strings in these amplified or intensified states of behaviour, conceptualised as a sounding topology in which lines become spiralling knots becoming curvilinear planes nested within folded volumes.
That’s a rather dry, technical way of describing the music though…
Within the ‘stick and slip’, the resistances of bow and string against the movement of forces flowing through the body, there is a deep expressive core. You can hear this expressive quality in the throaty distortion of the special ‘catch’ or ‘sob’ in the voice of Sufi singers, caught up in their passionate praise for the Divine. In that distorted inarticulacy of the voice ‘breaking’, we hear a connection to ecstasy. There’s something more celebratory about this quartet!
The quartet is called The Weaver’s Knot and is written for and dedicated to the Arditti String Quartet on the occasion of their 40th anniversary in 2014.