Come & Hear my String Quartet, 19 November, 13:00

The Ligeti Quartet will be performing my new String Quartet at 13:00 on Tuesday 19 November at St Stephen Walbrook; they will also perform Bartók’s 4th String Quartet. Admission is free, so please come along if you are in the area.

Meanwhile, here is my programme note, which will give a brief idea of what you can expect:

Matthew Butt, String Quartet (30 mins)

In March 2012 I saw the Arditti Quartet perform Alvin Lucier’s Navigations and was struck by how the incredibly slow pace of the work forces the listener to pay attention on a scale of minutes, rather than seconds. I wanted to explore this notion in a piece of my own, one that would stretch a small number of musical ideas over a long period of time.

Around this time a small melodic fragment started playing over in my mind: three notes rising up the harmonic series, then a fourth note stepping downwards rather than up. This motif became the basis of the ostinato middle section of this quartet.

The harmonic series suggested by this motif also led me to explore the use of subharmonics, or anomalous low frequencies. By bowing in a particular way, the performer can coax out notes which would normally be considered below the possible range of the instrument. Two sections of this quartet make wide use of subharmonics, contrasting them with the high, glassy harmonics used in other sections.

Finally, I used this piece to indulge my obsession with canon, mensuration, isorhythm, Greek lyric meter, prime numbers and algorithmic processes. The only truly conventional canon appears in the violins’ melodic section, but almost every other section draws extensively, if cryptically, on canonic techniques.

The pieces is in five sections:

Section 1: high, quiet, sustained notes; harmonics (5 mins)

The pitches start high, and slowly descend the harmonic series, getting less distinct and fading to nothing.

Section 2: low, brash, widely spaced notes; subharmonics (5 mins)

The quiet of the first section is brusquely broken. The pitches start low, rise towards the middle of this section, then descend again.

Towards the end of this section, the violins introduce a melodic canon which continues into Section 3.

Section 3: motoric ostinati (10 mins)

While the violins continue their melody, the cello introduces the 4-note motif, played to a 7-beat rhythm. After a while the viola joins with the same motif in a 5-beat rhythm. When the violins have played themselves out, they join the viola and cello to continue the ostinati in hocket.

Section 4: low, brash, sustained notes; subharmonics (5 mins)

This section takes the structure of Section 1, but the sonorities of Section 2. The pitches sink lower and lower, till all four players are below the conventional range of their instruments.

Section 5: high, quiet, widely spaced notes; harmonics (5 mins)

This section mixes the structure of Section 2 with the sonorities of Section 1. The pitches start high, descend towards the middle of the section, then rise towards the end. The instruments drop out, till the cello has the last word.

I was very lucky to have the opportunity to workshop this piece with the Ligeti Quartet in September, and their patient comments and questioning at this session have helped shape the quartet into the piece you will hear today.

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