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press reviews

The Smith Quartet

Written by Alan Cooper


Three Americans, Stephen Montague, Michael Gordon and Steve Reich along with one English composer, Gavin Bryars were the star attractions of the fourth concert in the Sound Festival's "minimalist-inspired weekend". The fabulous Smith Quartet was joined for this enterprise by David Sheppard who was in a sense the fifth member of the group. He was in control of the electro-acoustic element which played such a crucial role in all the music in the programme.

Stephen Montague's String Quartet No.1 - In memoriam Barry Anderson and Tomasz Sikorski (1991) is dedicated to the memory of two composer friends of Montague who both died prematurely. The Quartet opened with the players' bows drawing almost silent breathy sounds from their strings. I was reminded of the sort of thing that the Sicilian composer Salvatore Sciarrino asks of his instrumentalists namely the exploitation of sound possibilities that are normally ignored or avoided by most players. Were these the last breaths or heartbeats of poor Sikorski who died alone? Towards the end of the piece, the strings created an impression of police or ambulance sirens against a background ambience of street sound. I was particularly impressed by the way interactive electronics which capture the live sounds of the players and transform them along with the core of pre-recorded sounds were so perfectly integrated one with another and with the live players. Everything was expertly melded together and there was no sense of separate musical sources here. I was reminded in this work but even more so with Gavin Bryars and Steve Reich of the days when I was young. We did not have television till I was over twelve so when I listened to plays on the radio the pictures played inside my own head. From the very first sounds of the ships bell that opens The Sinking of the Titanic by Gavin Bryars visions of the tragedy opened up in my head. The creaking of the metal plates of the liner was imitated by the players and I could easily visualise the musicians continuing to play on the deck of the doomed ship. I was drawn to the comments made by Steve Reich in the programme note where he refers to "a new kind of documentary music video theatre". Even without the visuals this takes the idea of programme music into an entirely new realm of experience.

Michael Gordon writes that he wanted "to distance myself from everything I knew about string quartets". In Potassium (2001) he certainly achieved this. I can imagine some of the more traditionally minded string quartet aficionados being not at all amused by this music. I was myself shocked and mystified initially by the series of major and minor chords which slithered up or down, in and out of focus, but as the work progressed it began to develop its own special sense of form and logic. It was certainly unlike anything else I have ever heard and marks out this composer as possibly a unique individualist. I was confused by the reference in the programme note to potassium being the element which in the periodic table has the symbol K. Not being one to give up easily, I scoured the internet and came up with the answer - this work was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet!

The final work in the concert was Steve Reich's Different Trains which draws contrasts between the composer's comfortable journeys on trains across America and the very different train journeys experienced by the victims of the Holocaust on their way to the extermination camps. This was an astonishingly powerful work which took fragments of speech relating to both experiences and echoed their rhythm and pitch in the music. Minimalism seems to be a particularly effective means of suggesting the sounds and motions of locomotives. I was particularly taken with the way that the sounds of the train whistle were mimicked by the cello - a real stroke of genius from Reich. I would never have thought of it in a hundred years. This was an astonishingly fine performance by the Smith Quartet and their electronics expert. I spoke to some of the students who attended the performance and it was Steve Reich's piece which they found particularly impressive.

  • published on 22 October 2010
  • written by Alan Cooper

Reproduced with permission of the author.

relevant events
  Date Day Time Location Event Details
22Fri 7.30 pmAberdeenSmith Quartet