Tuesday 19 November 2019

Entangled: new music for string quartet inspired by quantum physics

Matthew Whiteside - Entangled
Matthew Whiteside Entangled; Aurea Quartet; Matthew Whiteside
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 November 2019 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Inspired by particle physics, three new string quartets which explore pitch, timbre and texture in striking ways

I first came across the music of Matthew Whiteside in 2015, when I reviewed his disc Dichroic Light [see my review]. Matthew is from Northern Ireland but now based in Glasgow and his opera Little Black Lies was performed by Scottish Opera in 2018 [see the review in The Stage].

Matthew Whiteside's second disc, Entangled, released through his own label, features music for string quartet, performed by the Aurea Quartet. The disc features three of Whiteside's quartets, Quartet No. 4 'Entangled', Quartet no. 5, and Quartet No. 6, plus two electronic works Response One and Response Two.

Quartet No. 4 was the result of a commission from the Institute of Physics, and the work gets its name, Entangled, from the work of Whiteside's great-uncle, physicist John Stewart Bell who worked on the theory of Quantum Entanglement [see the Wikipedia article for a definition], which relates to the behaviour of quantum particles. The three movements each have names taken from writings on the subject, 'Waves', 'Spooky Action', 'Spinning'.

But listening to the quartet blind, simply referring to the music and the titles, you might be forgiven for imagining another inspiration, as there is something dramatically filmic about this music, it seems to be evoking elements of an unseen drama.
The quartet might be subtitled, three studies for string quartet, as in each movement Whiteside takes a particular musical element and explores it. The first full of minor pitch variations on a group of strongly held pitches, using a whole variety of different timbres and textures. The second, 'Spooky Action' hard-edged seemingly random chords and slides between, classic Hitchcock-horror territory here, with rhythm and texture important, bringing a sense of continuous tension. The final movement, 'Spinning', features insistent, vigorous string crossing, with an occasional let up in the pace, until things evaporate at the end. The work uses electronics as well, and the resulting recorded sound has something of an insistent edge, a world away from the natural warmth of some recorded string quartets, this seems striking at first, but can become a bit relentless by the end of the quartet.

Whiteside's following two quartets also followed on from Entangled in their inspiration in the world of particle physics. Quartet No. 5 is similarly in three movements, though there are no titles here. Again, the idea of three studies for quartet seem to imply, with the first movement taking ideas from Quartet No. 4 and moving them in different directions. The second movement is similarly fascinated with small pitch variations to a single pitch, but disturbed by faster rhythms and passages of skittering. In the final movement, we have what can only be described as folk-ish drones, after the first bar or so you expect a Celtic type folk-melody to appear. Of course, it doesn't and the drones metamorphose into something rather intense.

Quartet No. 6 evidently takes its inspiration from wind chimes. It is a single-movement work, combining long held notes with tantalising fragments of melody with fail to coalesce, instead moving through repetitive textures and rhythmic figures.

As heard on this disc, Quartet No. 4 is an electro-acoustic work, but the composer assures me that it is perfectly playable acoustically. (Quartets Nos. 5 & 6 are both acoustic works). For those interested,  Matthew clarified the electro-acoustic process that went on in recording Quartet No. 4 - "Quartet No. 4 was written with a max patch in mind. The quartet and I worked with the patch I created which was then used for the performance in SARC. They were then recorded for the album and the recording run through the patch to create the electronic element. There was a little but more editing and balancing involved at the mixing stage but nothing major beyond what max was spitting out."

The three quartets definitely deserve a wider life and would warrant inclusion in an enterprising string quartet's concert programme. And in fact, you can get the scores and parts from Matthew Whiteside's website.

The two shorter works on the disc, Response One and Response Two are pure electronic landscapes, the first rather evocative and the second full of fragments, cries and whispers.

The realm of quantum particles might not, at first, seem a profitable area of interest for a contemporary musician, but Matthew Whiteside has clearly found a vein of inspiration which has resulted in a group of very striking works. Quartet No. 4 also has accompanying film from Marisa Zanotti. This is an enterprising disc, but a thoughtful one too, one which asks us to think about the music's inspiration but also enables us to listen to the resulting works with a different ear.

Update: following an email discussion with the composer I have clarified the acoustic/electro-acoustic details of the works in the above review.

Matthew Whiteside - Quartet No. 6 [11.12]
Matthew Whiteside - Response One [3:04]
Matthew Whiteside - Quartet No. 4 'Entangled' [15.41]
Matthew Whiteside - Response Two [3.20]
Matthew Whiteside - Quartet No. 5 [18.2]
Aurea Quartet (Julian Azkoul/Emma Oldfield, Rosemary Attree, Christine Anderson, Abby Hayward)
Recorded Airtight Studios, Manchester
Available via https://ffm.to/entangled
Support Planet Hugill by buying this from Amazon.

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