Friday 10 May 2019

Brainwaves and modernism: the Ligeti Quartet explores consciousness at Kings Place

The Ligeti Quartet performing at Kings Place in 2017
The Ligeti Quartet performing at Kings Place in 2017
Ruth Crawford Seeger, Cliff Kerr, Shiva Feshareki, Witold Lutoslawski; Ligeti Quartet; Kings Place Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 May 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two iconic 20th century quartets alongside more recent work in a highly imaginative and challenging programme

Exploring the idea of consciousness in music is a tricky thing, music's sheer nebulousness makes it difficult to handle concrete concepts. Yet the sheer challenge can bring rewards. In its programme at Kings Place on Thursday 9 January 2019, the Ligeti Quartet (Mandhira de Saram, Patrick Dawkins, Richard Jones, Val Welbanks) put together a programme which drew in different threads of the way we think about music and its performance. The centrepiece was Cliff Kerr's Brainstaves for string quartet and EEGs, which attempted to modulate the actual music being played via the performers own brainwaves! There was also Shiva Feshareki's Venus/Zoreh, contemplating the infinite via a deliberate reduction in musical aparatus by making the players use only open strings, yet giving them freedom to improvise, and Witold Lutoslawski's String Quartet with its controled use of aleatoric procedures. And the evening opened with Ruth Crawford Seeger's 1931 String Quartet.

Ruth Crawford Seeger had a fascinatingly diverse career, and her String Quartet represents the culmination of her first modernist period, before she started concentrating on American folk music. Seeger cultivated a deliberately independent voice, and the quartet is highly uncompromising in its approach, challenging for both listeners and players. It is in the standard four movements, the first was built out of small snatches of dialogue, restless combinations of lyric lines and busy triplets with moments of furious anger. The second movement seemed an extension of this uneasy dialogue, with fragments floating over harmonic stasis. The third created a remarkably intense atmosphere out of imitative entries from the players, again you sensed Crawford Seeger exploring the quartet as a real communal experience between four equals. In the finale it was the violin that dominated, with strong gestures answered by quieter phrases from the other three.

Cliff Kerr's Brainstaves, the Ligeti Quartet's 2019 commission, used the players' own EEGs to make decisions about the music that was played, Kerr operated a laptop running a programme which modulated the music actually being played. [You can read more about the background to the piece in my preview article]. In a sense this was the modern equivalent of Lutoslawski's aleatoric techniques, creating an element of randomness but ensuring that the essentials were constant. It was a highly atmospheric piece, again rather restless with different sections exploring different textures and a sense of disjunction sometimes between the different fragments of material. Kerr is a composer and a neuroscientist and I felt that he was as interested in the process as in the actual musical material.

The first half finished with Shiva Feshareki's Venus/Zoreh which was commissioned by the quartet in 2018 and performed by them on their tour of planetariums, was inspired by the idea of Venus the goddess and also the planned space trip to the planet. Feshareki restricts the players to just the open strings, allowing them to improvise within quite strict parameters. We started quietly, and Feshareki bent the rules by having the players alter pitch via the tuning pegs of their instruments! A sustained texture meant that you had to concentrate to appreciate individual moments of change in texture, dynamic or rhythm. Thankfully towards the end the music built to a furious climax.

The second half opened with a reprise of Cliff Kerr's piece, and it was intriguing to listen again and detect changes in atmosphere. This second version seemed more concentrated, with real violence growing out of the intense atmosphere, yet still with the restless changes of texture. Was this the result of the computer's adjustments to the material, differences in the players' approach or simply our response being coloured by our foreknowledge of the piece?

Finally, Lutoslawski's String Quartet, which was premiered in 1965 and in which the composer gives the players an element of freedom of choice. But in a letter quoted in the programme book he explained that he wanted each player to play as if they did not hear anything other than their own performance, and that if his instructions were followed 'there cannot appear anything that the composer had not forseen'.

It is an astonishing piece, and not withstanding Lutoslawski's requirements, comes over as a remarkable piece of communal music making. Perhaps the freedom in the individual parts creates the feeling of restlessness which imbues much of the work, but there is never any doubt that we are listening to an ensemble of four voices in dialogue. The way the fragmentary, motivic material was thrown about by the players created a definite feeling of ensemble, made more tantalising by the knowledge that if we heard it again it would be subtly different.

There were moments of real violence, and the main movement culminated in passages of astonishing ferocity, yet also extreme technical challenge too. This is not an easy work and the quartet rose to Lutoslawski's challenges (both technical and conceptual) magnificently. The vivid textures of the crisis were followed by quieter, intense moments which required a very different form of control from the players.

This was a challenging programme which required a lot from both performers and listeners, it was an examination of what you might expect a contemporary string quartet to be. Yet the fascinating thing was that both of the earlier pieces, the Seeger (written in 1931) and the Lutoslawski (written in 1965) presented just as great a challenge as the more recent ones.

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