Sunday, December 8, 2013

Writing String Quartets

As readers of this blog know, I am a guitarist. Going way back, I was a bass guitarist in a rock band, but I soon converted to a six-string guitarist and then a classical guitarist. I have always been a composer, but I didn't always realize that writing music meant that you were a composer.

I wrote something like forty songs in my late teens--all of them I think are lost, though there may be a recording kicking around somewhere... After I became a classical musician I wrote mostly chamber music for guitar with other instruments. Most of this is also lost. But for the last seven years or so I have started to take composition seriously and I have written a non-conventional string quartet for violin, harpsichord, harp and guitar as well as some trios for violin, viola and guitar. There is also my big song cycle Songs from the Poets which is, at around forty minutes performing time, my largest composition to date.

Just in the last couple of years I feel I have broken through an invisible boundary as I have started to write music that has nothing to do with the guitar. I guess I finally realized that I am a composer and not a guitar-composer! I have written one overture for orchestra and started another and I am perhaps three-quarters of the way through a string quartet. Here is the first page:

I'm not sure what got me started on composing for instruments I don't play. I guess it was a gradual process. I wrote music that included parts for violin and viola and nobody seemed to have any trouble playing them! Also, I noticed more and more that half of the musical ideas that came to me just didn't fit on guitar. When I wrote my first piece for orchestra, it was an amazing experience because I COULD GET EVERYTHING TO FIT! It felt like opening the door to a new world. Of course, I won't quite know if I have really walked out that door into the new world until I can hear a performance of some of my orchestral music. But I'm working on it.

All this is inspired by running across an article in The Guardian about guitarist/songwriter Bryce Dessner from The National and the music he has just written for the Kronos Quartet. Here is a sample of his work with the band from their new album Trouble Will Find Me:

And here is a piece that the Kronos Quartet commissioned called Aheym:

That's not a bad piece, is it? Sure, it gets a little fixated on certain rhythmic patterns, but hey, so does Philip Glass.

How do you write a string quartet, anyway? Obviously it doesn't hurt to be aware of what has been done in the string quartet medium. Here is what Bryce says about it from the Guardian article:
It's a daunting task, writing a string quartet. It is, after all, one of the great archetypes of the classical tradition, with so much amazing historical repertoire (Bartók – a particular favourite of mine – and Beethoven). But, for the very same reasons, it's been an exciting process. I love exploring the different timbral possibilities of the stringed instruments, and many of the pieces use specific techniques – col legno (playing with the wood of the bow), pizzicato, artificial harmonics, circular bowing patterns and so on.
Yep, the bowed strings have just an amazing range of possibilities. I notice that in Aheym he has chosen to write contrasting sections within a one-movement form. I have made the same choice in my quartet, though I am perhaps thinking a little more traditionally. Beethoven started that ball rolling, incidentally, in his Quartet in C # minor, op 131, which is in seven movements, but they are all in one continuous score.

No big points to make here, I just wanted to mention this new piece by Bryce Dessner (whom I had never heard of before) and muse a bit about the string quartet.

What shall we end with? How about a quartet by Shostakovich that is also in one movement with contrasting sections? Here is his String Quartet No. 13 in B flat minor, op. 138 (1970):

And here is the link to a post I wrote on the piece back in May.


Rickard Dahl said...

Chopin is a prime example of a one-instrument composer. While he has used other instruments than piano in his compositions, he has always included piano in his compositions. In a sense it's good as he has left us with a huge repertoire of piano music. He was a piano-composer but an incredible one.

Well, I'm surprised it took you so long to compose pieces that don't include guitar. While piano may be my main instrument I want to dive into composing for other instruments as soon as possible (piano is most versatile (with the least limitations) though). Got a duet for acoustic bass guitar and electric bass guitar in progress for instance. Maybe one of the movements will see the daylight soon.

Bryan Townsend said...

I went to a lecture once by a Polish pianist and conductor about Chopin. He made the comment that he would dearly love to describe Chopin as one of the great masters, but simply because he really only wrote for piano, he felt that he couldn't. This is probably why Chopin did not make it onto the New York Times list of the ten greatest composers. Mind you, I think that if an exception should be made for anyone, it should be for Chopin. He is a truly great composer--greater than, say, Bartok, who did make it onto the list.

The one exception that is allowed, it seems, is for opera composers. Few of the greatest instrumental composers were also masters of vocal music, especially the opera. Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, were all indifferent opera composers. On the other hand, the great opera composers, two of whom make it onto the New York Times list (Verdi and Wagner) were virtually never good at instrumental music. There is just one huge exception, of course: Mozart!

Acoustic and electric bass are certainly a unique ensemble. Interested to hear it!