GEORGES LENTZ - composer / sound artist
Caeli enarrant III
About 'String Quartet(s)'
from 'Mysterium' ("Caeli enarrant..." VII)
Installation work for 4-channel wav. soundtrack, based on recordings by The Noise Quartet, and with an original painting by Kathleen Petyarre (Untitled 2007, 165 x 120 cm, acrylic on Belgian linen) (2000-2018)
In parallel with my work on big orchestral scores, I have been drawn in the last fifteen-or-so years to that most sublime and demanding of musical genres, the string quartet – an attraction which has led me to write many quartet fragments over the years, as well as listening with great interest to numerous string quartets by other contemporary composers. It may be that, working with orchestras (often a rather conservative institution these days), I have felt an urge to put aside, for a change, all the financial, technical and time constraints often associated with that institution and to allow myself complete freedom in a totally different musical context. This reminded me of the quartet sketches on my desk - and of my disappointment, it must be said, with many of the new compositions I’ve been hearing. It seemed to me that most new works, including those with live electronics, were exploring only a fraction of the sound possibilities opened up by current technology, and that I ought to try and approach the string quartet genre from a slightly different angle. I thus decided not to aim for a live performance, but to instead work on a piece that would exist as a recording only, with a special focus on sounds and structures that would be impossible to achieve in a live setting. I also intentionally avoided any interactive element, so fashionable these days in connection with all things digital. Perhaps it was partly because of my decision to work with the fixed and linear form of a pre-recorded work that I decided to call the new composition a STRING QUARTET, rather than just an ‘installation with string quartet sounds’. I can certainly see how some might argue that it is not a string quartet. I maintain that it is.
From the 1960s onwards, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould proposed the notion of the recording not simply as documentation of a performance, but as a work of art in its own right. Today of course, in popular music, post-production is a commonplace process which aims to blend and mix various musical textures (a process that goes back all the way to the 1960s and to concept albums such as the Beatles' 'Sergeant Pepper' for ex.). With these things in mind, I approached a wonderful young Sydney string quartet, The Noise (Veronique Serret and Mirabai Peart, violins / James Eccles, viola / Oliver Miller, cello), and started recording, over many hours, some of the fragments on my desk with these enthusiastic and open-minded musicians. The Noise often work with contact microphones and pedals in order to transform their sound in multiple ways. Improvisation is another strength of these four musicians, and it came to the fore in our recording sessions. We worked with anything from high-end to very poor mics, in very dry and inferior acoustics all the way to professional environments (the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House). We sometimes placed the mics very far from the sound source, other times put them so close they touched the vibrating string! In this way we achieved a multitude of different sounds even at the recording stage. The hiss and rumble of poor microphones, the howls and drones of faulty effect pedals feedback, the screeching of distorted recording levels etc, after initially being discarded, came to be seen as an interesting and very usable part of the sound material. Through all of this, one thing became increasingly clear – the RECORDING itself, both as a process and as a medium, with all its strengths and weaknesses, was becoming more and more one of the overriding themes of the new composition.
Next, I listened back to all these lengthy recording sessions, and started transforming/fragmenting/distorting/looping the material on my laptop, first with the help of a rather antiquated piece of software, CoolEdit Pro - later upgrading it to its more up-to-date cousin, Audition, in order to cast the work in 4-channel surround sound. Through this process, I found many exciting sonic and structural possibilities opening up to me – things that would simply not have been possible with a live string quartet on a stage. Even the shortcomings of the editing software (which was clearly developed for far simpler and more commercial purposes) yielded unpredictable, but sometimes exciting and usable results. I also remember a CD with part of our recordings, which I had lost and then found again badly scratched – and I discovered that the digital glitch caused by the scratched surface actually produced some very interesting sounds. More generally speaking, the accidental digital bleeps and glitches, as well as some overpowering feedback drones, interested me more and more and I started homing in on them, chopping/looping/stringing them to produce what could perhaps be seen as sonic barcode or techno rhythms. In short, an exciting creative process was starting to develop, fluctuating between compositional control and a sense of letting go, between written-out music and free improvisation, between purely rational planning and the many surprises encountered along the way. Because of the extreme roughness of some of the sounds, the conscious inclusion of ‘lo-fi’ techniques, and the improvised (or sometimes seemingly improvised) nature of some of the musical material, I came to increasingly compare this process to a graffitied wall, and I still like to think of the final result as a gigantic sound wall sprayed with audio graffiti.
Due to the length of the initial recordings (if nothing else), it became clear early on that this would be an extremely long work. Undoubtedly, some will see the final length of six/seven hours as downright ridiculous. For me, it seemed like an exciting challenge to write a piece of music which, because of its sheer length, was not to be taken in all at once - no listener is expected to sit through six hours straight! I simply attempted to create a work which one could “live with”, of which one could take in five minutes or thirty minutes or two hours here and there, in the knowledge that “there is much more”. To me it is music that can be explored bit by bit, over time. I wanted to take on the huge challenge of thinking and structuring sound on that kind of very unwieldy time scale, and see if I could mould it into a logically and, most importantly, an emotionally satisfying musical argument. I see an analogy to a STARRY NIGHT SKY, of which one might only see a tiny fragment, in the knowledge that this fragment is part of something infinitely more vast and complex, and points to the (dare I use such an unfashionable word?) the SUBLIMITY of something far grander than us.
Over the years, my reading of William Blake’s Prophetic Books, and especially his apocalyptic masterpiece Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion, has only deepened my 'infatuation with the sublime'. It therefore seemed increasingly unavoidable to include Blake in some shape or form in the emerging composition – I literally had his poetic sounds in my ears day and night, and I see the final piece as an attempt at rendering/interpretating the music of Blake's language. In the final version of String Quartet(s), Blake's words are heard in two key spots in the form of my own (very imperfect) spoken voice. Besides the anecdotal diary character of such quotes, I saw some creative tensions opening up here – between the difficulty of Blake’s demanding poem and the difficulty in grasping the polyphonic layering of the spoken texts; between broken text fragments and fully read-out passages ; between the various time layers (Romanticism/21st century) and an almost mystical timelessness; between a layered-voice technique reminiscent of Glenn Gould’s radio documentaries (Solitude Trilogy, 1967-77) and (for most of the work) a purely instrumental or instrument-derived sound.
I do not wish to explain the title String Quartet(s) too specifically. I can see many possible meanings in the bracketed plural form of the work's title, and I really want to admit them all. I should, however, mention the plurality of short buried fragments of classical quartet compositions (Haydn, Beethoven, Bartók, Lachenmann…). They are a reverence to some great quartet composers, as well as a hint to the growing fragmentation of our digitized world, a reflection of its increasing lack of context and authenticity, its plurality, its simultaneity, its randomness. In that sort of context, any sense of a bigger picture might best be obtained by getting some distance from the sheer flood of detail, as one might by stepping back from a pointillist painting.
‘Pointillist’ is a term that could perhaps also be applied to the artwork which accompanies and completes the soundtrack of String Quartet(s), an original 2007 painting (acrylic on linen 1650 x 1200 mm) by the eminent Australian Aboriginal artist Kathleen Petyarre – somewhat incorrectly so of course, as ‘pointillist’ is a term that comes from Western art discourse and probably has very little meaning in the context of Indigenous Australian art. The painting is my own and, just like Blake’s Jerusalem, has been my steady companion during my work on String Quartet(s). Hanging on a wall facing my work space, I literally had it in front of my eyes day and night. I therefore do not see it as mere ‘decoration’ of the musical sounds, but as an integral part of String Quartet(s). The canvas is in constant dialogue with the music. The aforementioned complexity, the starry night sky and deep space analogy, the four obvious lines in the painting which I see as a symbol of the four string instrument lines (along with a number of intriguing, more hidden lines), a sense of spirituality which in Indigenous culture has retained a freshness and authenticity it has often lost in Western culture, a feeling of endless space going far beyond the edge of the canvas – all these are things I see in Kathleen’s painting. They also happen to be the very things that have always influenced my music.
G. L. © 2018
* View the original Kathleen Petyarre painting that forms an integral part of String Quartet(s).