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Program Notes

It was Goethe, a man of modestly middle-class musical opinions, who was responsible for the apt and often quoted remark that a string quartet is like a conversation between four intelligent individuals. Since the age of Viennese classism the string quartet has indeed remained the crowning glory of chamber music (if not all music). Each quartet of the master composers, from Haydn to Webern, has been a complex mechanism in which the smallest components, like the cogs of an ingenious timepiece, enjoy an important function. On may wonder if this can be said of Kagel’s kinked first two quartets (designed to be played together or separately), the String Quartet i/ii. Instead of blossoming forth with a crescendo at the opening, we hear the elusive sound of a knitting needle. Instead of an intricately interwoven melody, we hear almost randomly whirring sound particles. In place of a dignified gravitas, we have a conglomeration of sonorous gestures. Clearly, the genre is being turned on its head.

The second quartet opens with the violins using a serrated wooden rod. The first violin must overcome one passage with its left hand in a leather glove and at the end of the piece, the players must look at each other with puzzled expressions. It is a piece which by it extreme nature, its added mixture of noise and its uncompromising abstraction, presents an implacable face to the world. The most highly evolved state of compositional techniques, which requires the most highly evolved skills of the performers, reflects by the same token the notion that the potential for silliness in the world has reached its highest state too. While they may turn away from the appeal to reason and beauty of the classical quartet, Kagel’s first work for the medium still manage to remain true to the genre of the string quartet by their very negation of rationality.

Adapted from a note by Werner Klüppelholtz, with the permission of International Music.