Tuesday 14 May 2019

Striking new directions: Markus Reuter's string quartet from Solaire Records

Markus Reuter - String Quartet - Solaire Records
Markus Reuter String Quartet No. 1 'Heartland'; Matangi Quartet; Solaire Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 May 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A large-scale string quartet by rock guitarist Markus Reuter proves surprising and intriguing

A number of musicians have made the transition from pop or rock music to classical, but usually the carry something of the one world to the other. The fascinating thing about the String Quartet by the rock guitarist Markus Reuter is that the work seems to give no indication of its composer's rock background. This premiere recording by the Matangi Quartet on Solaire Records demonstrates that Markus Reuter's String Quartet No. 1 'Heartland' deserves to be taken on its own terms.

So who is Markus Reuter? He has played with the progressive rock band The Stick Men, with the Europa String Choir, he has worked with legendary guitarist Robert Fripp, and helped set up Crimson ProjeKCt, one of the most prestigious and most long lived King Crimson spin-offs. The music on this disc is a very different sound world, just string quartet, yet it has its inspiration in the music imagined by the teenage Markus Reuter.
The work is in eight movements, each with a title - 'Boon', 'X has taken a shine to you', 'Neteong 63', 'Dwell on a Star', 'The Tragic Universe', 'Zauberberg', 'Heartland Bleeds', 'The Magic Universe'. At least two of the titles were inspired by Scarlett Thomas' book Our Tragic Universe, but there is nothing cosily descriptive in Reuter's music. If anything, it is surprisingly stark and uncompromising. I heard echoes of other composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich, and the CD booklet refers to both Hindemith and Mike Oldfield as influences. But Reuter's handling of the four instrumental lines creates a very definite sound-world.

Reuter doesn't write melodies as such; his musical motifs are striking but also have a sense of individual notes being placed in space. And he does not seem to actually harmonise, instead there are multiple contrasting counter-melodies. The resulting polyphonic interplay, modern counter-point, very much uses the four instruments as independent lines. Though tempos and textures vary enormously throughout the work, there is also a sense of commonality between the music of the different movements.

The music feels like the steady working out of an algorithm, a puzzle. And, in fact, one of the essays in the admirable CD booklet talks about how both the musicians and Reuter himself were surprised at the direction the piece had taken. Reuter talks about composing as finding new ordering principles for pitches, and the new direction his music has taken is inspired by questions asked of his teenage self. And the intervening years seem to have been spent partly in gaining faith and confidence in himself as a composer.

His music is based around a computer coded algorithm, a concept that is quite tricky to elucidate in print. And the idea of using a computer programme to create the raw materials of the music would seem to rule out the role intuition might play, but it seems that Reuter distrusts intuition. Yet the resulting music has very definite personality and emotional content.

I have to confess that the music intrigued me more than it moved me. But Reuter's quartet is certainly a work which deserves exposure. It would be enlightening to hear it performed live, and I am intrigued as to what Reuter will do next.

Markus Reuter - String Quartet No. 1 'Heartland'
Matangi Quartet
Solaire Records
Recorded 17 & 18 October 2019, Kirche Sum Heiligen Kreuz, Berlin
Available from Amazon.

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