north east scotland's festival of new music

press reviews

The Smith Quartet

Written by Alan Cooper


It is always heartening to see organisers rushing to carry more chairs into the auditorium before a concert. The crowd who came to hear the Smith Quartet play music by Terry Riley, Graham Fitkin and Michael Nyman were in danger of spilling out into the neighbouring Gallery and as the programme progressed more and more people were drawn in to listen.

Terry Riley's Good Medicine is the last in a cycle of five string quartets bearing the overall title of Salome Dances for Peace (1986-87). I wonder what sort of dancing Riley had in mind for this piece. As it opened and at the end too, the jaunty rhythm had a little "jump" in it that reflected the leaps of Irish step dancing. The two violins near the end also suggested something of the repetitive strains of Irish jigs and once again it occurred to me that a great deal of popular, classical and especially folk music contains elements of minimalism though never aware of bearing any such label. As the piece developed, the overlay of repetition and the verve of the instrumental attack suggested a kind of proto-fugal polyphony. Brilliantly co-ordinated playing by the Smith Quartet brought real zest and polish to the music making it dance along and sparkle as it went.

Graham Fitkin was in the audience to say a few introductory words about his own composition, Servant (1992). He mentioned his main stratagem in composing this piece namely to contrast unison playing with more contrapuntal quartet writing. This came through very clearly in this performance by the Smith Quartet though there was also effective contrast in dynamics and tempi throughout the work. Vibrant chording and seductive solos from first violin and cello added to the attractiveness of this work and perhaps unusually for a minimalist work it boasted a clearly defined coda and ending.

The String Quartet No.3 (1990) by Michael Nyman grew from a choral work Out of the Ruins which he wrote for a BBC Documentary. Melodic and harmonic vocal textures are still apparent throughout this work. Minimalism is still an important contributor to the music but I felt that here it was subsumed into a much broader structure and played a largely supporting role in it. I was reminded once again that earlier composers, for instance Anton Bruckner, used minimalist techniques in their music - although he would certainly not have realised this himself.

The response of the audience to all three pieces was little less than ecstatic and many stayed behind afterwards to chat to the players. Afterwards I went to hear the Sound Festival lecture given by Tom Service and entitled "So long, and thanks for all the noise: 2010 and the end of musical history". One of the themes he tackled was the difficulty in promoting contemporary music beyond a small coterie of the initiated who often only come to carp and criticise anyway. Perhaps the enthusiastic attendance at today's Lunchbreak Concert goes just a little way to suggesting that the Sound Festival is helping to rectify that.

  • published on 23 October 2010
  • written by Alan Cooper

Reproduced with permission of the author.

reviewed event
  Date Day Time Location Event Details
23Sat 1.00 pmAberdeenSmith Quartet