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string quartet: evolution & mutation

stephen whittington on adelaide’s zephyr quartet

 Belinda Gehlert, Emily Tulloch,<BR /> Anna Webb and Hilary Kleinig, Zephyr Quartet Belinda Gehlert, Emily Tulloch,
Anna Webb and Hilary Kleinig, Zephyr Quartet
photo Steven Donovan
In the world of classical music the string quartet has accumulated more intellectual prestige than any other genre. Invented by Haydn and perfected by Mozart, its primal form was the perfect musical embodiment of Enlightenment ideals. Abandoning Baroque rhetoric of public address, the quartet became the intimate conversation of equals in which rational argument and wit were the principal virtues. The equality of the four instruments accorded with the emerging ideals of liberal democracy, representing a condition that all might aspire to, given the appropriate education—that of the cultivated, enlightened individual, engaged in harmonious social intercourse with like-minded equals.

The 19th century hijacked this ideal in the name of Romantic individualism, giving it an altogether more emotional hue. The Romantic cult of Beethoven did much to place the string quartet at the pinnacle of the musical pantheon. Beethoven’s late quartets became a cornerstone of the myth of the heroic, misunderstood artist that Beethoven personified. And the quartet has remained, essentially unchallenged, at that pinnacle ever since. In Australia, the string quartet has flourished under the patronage of Musica Viva, an organisation largely founded by post-War refugees from central Europe, with a subscriber base drawn from the professions, the educated middle classes and a wealthy elite. Most quartets touring the country under the Musica Viva banner are imported; Australia has rarely, if ever, managed to support more than two full-time, professional quartets at any given time. Even now, following the Byzantine intrigues that have led to the former Australian String Quartet becoming the Grainger Quartet and the former Tankstream Quartet becoming the Australian String Quartet, it is by no means certain that both ensembles will survive for the long haul.

Traditional classical ensembles of all kinds from the orchestra down face a struggle for survival, and are trying in many cases desperately to re-invent themselves for a cultural landscape that has radically changed in the past couple of decades. A significant broadening of the repertoire—some would call it dilution—including a rapprochement with popular music, has been the most popular survival strategy. Australia’s newly privatised symphony orchestras provide good examples of this process at work.

Zephyr Quartet consists of Belinda Gehlert and Emily Tulloch (who rotate as first and second violins), Anna Webb (viola) and Hilary Kleinig (cello). At least two of the players (Gehlert and Kleinig) have also composed for the ensemble. In the course of 2006, the Quartet has shown itself to be as inventive with its venues as it has with its programs, appearing at a commercial art gallery, an inner-suburban pub, a city club, a bar in Adelaide’s sin strip and the rehearsal studio of a contemporary dance company.

The biggest challenge facing classical ensembles who want to embark on this sort of path is that nothing in their training has really prepared them for it. The road to becoming a quartet is difficult enough, given that much classical musical education is predicated on the paramount importance of the soloist; a deep understanding of the essence of chamber music is often relegated to a relatively minor part of the curriculum. Beyond that, few institutions would give classical string players any more than token exposure to jazz or popular music, teach them anything more than the most rudimentary techniques of composition, train them in any form of improvisation, or equip them with skills to handle new technologies. Poorly served by an educational ethos inherited from the 19th century, young musicians of the 21st century are compelled to find their own way.

Michael Nyman’s String Quartet No.2 was the major work in Zephyr’s Musica Viva Menage Concert Series outing, From Tango to Techno, in the Leigh Warren and Dancers Studio (Sept 14). It was the only work on the program to involve dancers, and was performed in the round, with the Quartet also changing positions for each movement. The choreography of dancers and musicians formed an intriguing, visually engaging counterpoint to the characteristically frenetic music of Nyman. The quartet playing was rhythmically strong though a little wayward in intonation.

A couple of techno pieces in that program (by Gehlert and Kleinig) set the scene for a more extensive collaboration with electronics when Zephyr appeared at the Rocket Bar in Hindley Street in their Electro-Acoustic Project (Sept 29). The composers this time included Zoë Barry, Cameron Deyell, Fiona Hill, Stefan Panczak, Brendan Woithe, Michael Yuen and Kleinig. The music was stylistically diverse, ranging from a strongly conceptual piece by Yuen through to a techno-influenced work from Stefan Panczak. The use of technology was well short of what is currently possible, particularly in terms of interactivity and real-time processing. The players were also obliged to listen more closely to the electronic tracks they had to play with than to one another. As so often happens (from Kronos Quartet to pop-classical girl group Bond, the story is much the same) the ideal of chamber music as an intimate discourse between individuals was largely lost when amplification, technology and the performance practice of popular music took over.

That ideal made a bit of a comeback at Zephyr’s next appearance, Generation Next, at the Jade Monkey (Oct 19), a rather pleasant little club in a quiet side street in the city centre. A diverse collection of works by Adelaide composers Jamie Messenger, Anne Cawrse, Melisande Wright, Angus Barnacle, Luke Altmann and Tristan Coleman provided an opportunity to ponder different contemporary approaches to the medium. Young composers seem to regard the quartet as a palette of sounds rather than a social microcosm and the dynamic potential of the quartet medium was only superficially explored for the most part. Nonetheless, it was an interesting evening, with solid performances and a few pieces—such as that by Luke Altmann—that sought to probe some emotional depth.

Zephyr Quartet is an adventurous young ensemble, though there are limits to their adventurousness, and I don’t expect to hear them playing some genres of highly demanding and complex contemporary music. They are more at home in the world of minimalism, neo-tonality and crossover genres. They are certainly performing a valuable service for Adelaide composers, and are providing audiences with varied and at times provocative listening experiences as they explore possible directions for classical music’s most venerated ensemble.

Zephyr Quartet’s 2007 program includes: Homegrown—The Music of Annne Cawrse a celebration of music composed by Cawrse for Zephyr, Carclew Arts Centre, March 30; between music, place, memory and emotion: folk songs and new compositions by Hilary Kleinig and Belinda Gehlert inspired by the work of Adelaide-based Iraqi-born poet Yahia Al-Samawy, with percussionist Tim Irrgang, Nexus Cabaret, Lion Arts Centre, July 6; Sight Specific Music: Phillip Glass String Quartet No 2 and new commissions composed by Graham Dudley and James Cuddeford, Greenaway Art Gallery, Oct 26, 28

RealTime issue #77 Feb-March 2007 pg. 49

© Stephen Whittington; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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