Composer Spotlight: Mihkel Kerem

July 20, 2014



Composer Spotlight: Mihkel Kerem, Expression Suite



Written as a series of six short movements, Mihkel Kerem's Expression Suite is a tribute to the brief period of Expressionist music developed in the early 20th century by composers Arnold Schoenberg and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern, promoters of the Second Viennese School.  As we began to play this piece, we were struck by the exquisite craftsmanship Mihkel demonstrated in his string quartet writing. He creates a work which combines the four instruments into a well-oiled machine.  Expression Suite almost serves as an intensified study of string quartet mechanics, all the while containing hallmarks of expressionist music, including an abrupt and angular musical language, fragmented and episodic motifs that jump out, and an intense emotional energy.


Mihkel has been composer-in-residence at the Schleswig Holstein Festival in Germany and the Aurora Chamber Music Festival in Sweden. His chamber and orchestral works have been performed by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Camerata Nordica, and the Chilingirian String Quartet. He lives in London, UK.

Mihkel Kerem


Where are you from?

I'm from Estonia and live in London.


What got you interested in composition?

At an early age I tried to set some notes down and after a while they started to make sense. It was then I was sent to composition lessons and the rest is history.


Who have been your biggest musical influences?
My biggest influences have been Shostakovich, Mahler, Ravel and perhaps also Stravinsky.

What are some challenges or advantages when writing for string quartet?
String quartet in my mind is the perfect ensemble to write for. It is the most compact ensemble possible with natural balance. The only real challenge in writing for string quartet is the avalanche of masterpieces already written for it over the last 250 years and competing with them feels somewhat unfair at times when presenting new music to ensembles.

Anything else you wish to say about your piece, Expression Suite?
Expressionism in music lasted for only very short period of time in history and I find more music could be written in this style; especially for string quartet. I wanted to write a series of miniatures that could be played in any number as a suite, or separately as encores or fillers in concert programs. The order of movements in the score is the order I wrote them but not necessarily the order they should be performed as a suite.

The Villiers Quartet perform Movement I of Mihkel Kerem's Expression Suite for the VQ New Works Competition online Semifinal Round.  View the video at


Mihkel Kerem's website:




Blog from James

July 19, 2014



Thoughts from James Dickenson


Donizetti's late Opera Don Pasquale, set during the First World War is a remarkable comic parody, a musical and comic masterpiece about the dangers, the very real dangers of marrying in Old Age. As much as I enjoyed performing this great work, sadly at half time, whilst waiting backstage, I had to endure our present day comic parody stroke tragedy, "Britain has Talent".  Although this was my virginal debut, even after 5 minutes it is quite clear that the one thing Britain seemed to lack, was just that, Talent. 


Curious and one has to wonder what happened, as arguably one of the most extraordinary aspects of this small island off the coast of France was it's ability to create firstly maverick eccentrics, and secondly to out and out geniuses. The list is quite endless, writers, musicians, artists, comics all, ground breaking, sometimes anti establishment, all seemingly shaped in some way by this country. If in my mind there is one that really stands (and trust me this is going somewhere) out, it is Dudley Moore. If you have never heard Dudley Moore playing in his Jazz Trio, do yourself a favour and buy the CD, you will thank me: "not at all" I hear myself say.... Comic, Musician, Organist, Composer and Pianist generally very clever guy and importantly for this meme, a contributor to Saturday television in 1960's.


There are many of these small miracles of music and humour, not only to they sound like Faure and Schubert capturing the ethos and "air" of the time but there are satirical and funny, poking fun at themselves. So what did happen, did we really lose our Talent?


Signing off for now JD



Composer Spotlight: Jose Gonzalez Granero

July 17, 2014





Composer Spotlight: Jose Gonzalez Granero, Quartet No. 1 'Noche del Amor Insomne'



"The whole piece is treated as a poem. Little motifs like verses rhyme within the music"

-Jose Gonzalez Granero


As string players, we have spent considerable time playing in ensembles for various large-scale productions of opera, ballet, and musical theatre, as well as performing in numerous recordings for film and television scores. From these experiences, we are no strangers to realising the power of music as an effective tool for dramatic structure. Music enhances so much of our collective storytelling. It often becomes the central motif for expressing a dramatic idea. What would Psycho be without Bernard Herrmann's score? How else could the finale in Don Giovanni be effective without Mozart's foreboding music? Composers find a way to become inspired by drama, and in turn the drama becomes tied to the music. The intersection at which music and other art forms meet is an inspirational moment.


VQ Composer Jose Gonzalez Granero wrote his Quartet No. 1 after a recalling a visit he made to the home of Spanish national poet Federico García Lorca in Granada. He took the title of his string quartet from the poem "Noche del Amor Insomne/A night of sleepless love," a poem from the collection of García Lorca's Sonnets of Dark Love. Written in one movement, this quartet has a distinctly Spanish flavour, and presents a feeling of beautiful lyrical drama. A lamenting theme is introduced by the cello, and then passed around each instrument. Pizzicati and quick arpeggios serve to emulate notes strummed on a guitar. There is also inspiration from opera here - Granero is Principal Clarinettist with the San Francisco Opera - and we can find hints of Puccini and La Boheme adding to the lyrical flavour of the string quartet.


Jose Gonzalez Granero is a clarinettist and composer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He graduated from Granada Royal Conservatory, USC Thornton School of Music, and The Colburn School in Los Angeles. In addition to his position of Principal Clarinet with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Jose alternates his career as a composer, having written for the EOS Ensemble and the Granada Brass Quintet.




Jose Gonzalez Granero


Where are you from?

I am from a small village in the south of Spain called Iznatoraf.


What got you interested in composition?

Since I was 12 years old I was interested in composition. Although my first instrument was the clarinet, back then my interest for composition kept growing through the years.


Who have been your biggest musical influences?

I could say my biggest influences were Bach, Beethoven and Stravinsky.


What are some challenges or advantages when writing for string quartet?

I have to say that writing for string quartet is very complex specially knowing all the big repertoire by all the great composers. To start composing for string quartet is intimidating. As a woodwind player I had to study string instruments before writing anything. Also, I did a lot of listening. Once the piece was written I talked to some string players for their advice, this was the most valuable learning experience.


Anything else you wish to say about your piece, Quartet No. 1?

My piece was inspired by a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca: ‘Noche del Amor Insomne.’ In this piece, I included a violin cadenza which it is not very common in traditional string quartets form.


The Villiers Quartet performs the opening excerpt of Jose's "String Quartet No. 1, Noche del Amor Insome" for the VQ New Works Competition online Semifinal Round. View the video at


Jose Gonzalez Granero's website:





Current standings of Composers Vote

July 17, 2014

Current Standings of the Online Semifinal Round: Mid-July



1)  Simon Parkin

2)  Jose Gonzalez Granero

3)  Wei-Chieh Lin

4)  Matthew Browne

5)  Mihkel Kerem

6)  Zhiyi Wang


Still a few weeks to go - it could change at any moment! Curious about these pieces? Watch and Vote at

Composer Spotlight: Zhiyi Wang

July 13, 2014






Composer Spotlight: Zhiyi Wang "Three Overlapping Sounds"



Learning about the lives and histories of our VQ Composers provided a great joy for us throughout the course of preparing the New Works Competition. With entries from composers spanning all ages and nationalities this year, we were not surprised to learn that many composers often straddled more than one country in their "cultural DNA." For instance - a composer was born in one country, raised in another, and studied music in yet another different culture. With travel and communications making it easier to cross international boundaries, we recognise this common trend in the shaping of today's musicians and how we perceive music.


The cultural history of the Villiers Quartet is no different. Within the VQ, we have many strands of "cultural DNA" which add to the foundations of the group. As a quartet established in the United Kingdom, we also have collectively spent significant amounts of time studying and living in the United States, Japan, Canada, and the Philippines. In a nod to our homeland, we are a quartet that likes to feature works by English composers. These strands of various international backgrounds and history - whether achieved by chance or by choice - are all part of the mix of who we are.


Zhiyi Wang's story of cross-cultural history is similar to ours. Born in Beijing, he first studied composition at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, before moving to the United States to continue studying at Oberlin College and the University of Louisville. Coming across his string quartet, "Three Overlapping Sounds," we were struck by the amount of cultural influences in his work.


Written in three brief movements (the third movement being the longest), "Three Overlapping Sounds" captures an atmosphere with sensual textured harmonies, while maintaining a good balance of voicing within the quartet. In the second movement, he features a jazz riff in the cello part. For the upper three strings, he doubles the voices by having them play double stops (more than one string) to add another layer of sound. Halfway through the movement, the upper strings split the rhythm and create arpeggios that are spread delicately from the bottom up. This feature of rich harmonies is a thread of the entire piece, and one that reflected Wang's unique voice for the string quartet.


Zhiyi Wang was born in 1980. He was Composer-in-Residence at the Shanghai Opera House in 2006, and was a composer for the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremonies. He is based in Beijing.





Zhiyi Wang

Zhiyi Wang



Where are you from?

I am from Beijing, China, where I am living and working now.


What got you interested in composition?

To express musically what I want to say upon my aesthetics, how interesting it is that these “twelve tones” could generate countless works with various styles and genres.


Who have been your biggest musical influences?

A lot, I was attracted to music of different styles since my childhood, classical, pop, jazz, 
electronic, folk, soundtrack, etc.  All type of music has its own characteristc and charm, I think an open-minded artist should be sensitive to absorb nutritions from anything musically inspiring.

What are some challenges or advantages when writing for string quartet?

As the four are all strings, the sound type and voice are limited, thus to explore some fresh expressions in a “string way” is quite amusing.


Anything else you wish to say about your piece?

In this piece, many occasions there are more than four voices so that complicated harmonies could  be achieved to create a rich, delicate and expressive quartet sound.


The Villiers Quartet performs "Part Two" of Zhiyi Wang's "Three Overlapping Sounds" for the VQ New Works Competition online Semifinal Round. View the video at


Zhiyi Wang's website:






Let's Keep the Ukeleles and the Recorders

July 12, 2014

Nick's Blog





My thoughts have been occupied this week by the impact of systematic cuts to the Arts, and its effect on music in schools. I have recently experienced this first hand after visiting a handful of primary schools in different parts of the country.


The first thing that hit me was just how little instrumental teaching was happening in some schools. It is not unusual for a school musical evening to now consist primarily of children performing to backing tracks. Don't get me wrong, the performances themselves are often very creative and sometimes in the case of the dance ensembles, choreographed by the children themselves. The small instrumental element is represented by those children who learn their instruments outside school, privately or with a parent. I don't mean to generalise about this and I should point out that there is another side to the coin.


I also visited a school where instrumental teaching still appeared to be thriving. This school was obviously managing to cling on to its peripatetic music service. The class teachers (who probably remember how instrumental music in schools used to be) seem desperate to keep the home fires burning. But what becomes evident in this situation is the difficulty to maintain standards as the instrumental lessons get squeezed. Most of the time, we're talking about a 30 minute group lesson with 3 children. That's 10 minutes each! In real terms, after spending 2 minutes getting the instrument out of its case (and putting it away), a broken string would mean the end of the lesson!

Another model for instrumental music in schools is the huge sticking plaster known as "wider opportunities." This, I imagine started life as a box ticking exercise, and on paper it looks pretty good. Alerted to the fact that instrumental music in schools was becoming extinct, the solution was to get everybody in a classroom playing the same instrument for a year. As a result, it's not unusual to walk into schools and find an arsenal of trumpets ready to “lock and load.” Unfortunately, there are some schools which acquired the instruments for wider ops, but now don't have the resources to properly support it. Then you’re left with a Performing Arts space which now houses a tenor horn graveyard...

Allow me to transport you back to the early eighties and to my primary school in Rotherham. I started learning the recorder using tablature like a lot of kids my age did. I can't remember a time when I wasn't playing chamber music in some shape or form, even if it was sharing a music stand with a flautist as we battled through "Cherokee Chief"! I was asked on the strength of those experiences (even with my "goldfish" recorder technique) whether I'd like to play the cello...and the rest (as they say) is history.


Rotherham music service was a crack team of enthusiastic and exciting professional teachers. They would come into school en masse and give ensemble performances displaying an infectious camaraderie and communication. This rapport existed because the teachers spent a lot of time working together. There were at least two youth orchestra rehearsals every week, which the majority of instrumental teachers would attend and coach their particular sections. I remember my very first experience of string quartet playing, after I had only been studying the cello a couple of years. It was a weekend chamber music course and the initiative of one of the string teachers who was passionate about quartet playing and wanted to share his burning enthusiasm.

I know from talking to many of my colleagues that this situation was not unusual and there were other notable music services in Leicester and Bedfordshire for example, who are now sadly struggling against cuts in funding.

I have to say at this point that there is an abundance of great teachers out there right now. They still have all that burning enthusiasm that they're desperate to share. I've seen amazing things happen in response to these cuts.... individual instrumental teachers holding 60 children spellbound with their charisma and instrumental virtuosity. In some ways these teachers have had to evolve with the environment and now need a comprehensive "tool kit" to deal with anything that might get thrown at them.

The problem is, moral is low in many areas of the teaching profession. These amazing people are now under so much pressure to get results that their passion and enthusiasm is waning. Many teachers are under much scrutiny from regulating bodies and effectively encouraged not to teach in a creative way. There is no longer space to nurture individual talent. This system of box ticking is eroding the rapport that existed between the teachers and making our schools soulless. My only hope is that somehow we find a way to increase the resources and inject life back into our music services and schools again.

Let's keep the ukuleles and the recorders. They are an entry point for children to quickly find a musical voice, and can be introduced in the classroom by every teacher. There comes a point, though, when some of those children need a leg up to the next rung of the musical ladder--the watchful eye of that teacher who recognises their talent and can say “How about trying the cello now? There’s one in the music cupboard with your name on it.”










Composer Spotlight: Matthew Browne

July 10, 2014



Composer Spotlight: Matthew Browne - String Quartet no. 1, "A Penumbral Eclipse"

It has been an incredible journey for the VQ these last few months, as we connect with composers from all over the world. If there's one thing we've learned from this year's competition, it's that new music for String Quartet is alive and thriving, and composers are fervently creating new works that provide a voice for the genre. Here we are with the new batch of 2014 semifinalists, all of whom have participated in the VQ New Works Competition. We are thrilled to be playing their music.

The biggest impact we felt when reading these works was learning about the musical personalities from each composer. These days, it's easy to glean insights into personalities of the great composers from the works themselves: Beethoven's Grosse Fugue reveals a master composer who, late in his life, knew how to push the boundaries of string quartet and wasn't afraid to do it; Elgar's String Quartet in E minor, shows a more intimate and wistful Elgar who is different from the public "Pomp and Circumstance" persona he came to be known for.


Coming across Matthew Browne's work, String Quartet no. 1 "A Penumbral Eclipse," we were intrigued by the various sources of inspiration he used for this work. Remembering an experience he had while watching a total lunar eclipse, Matthew's thoughts focused on shadows - the "grey areas" - we often overlook in our lives. Taking his inspiration from the penumbra - the moment in an eclipse either just before complete darkness or complete illumination, Matthew's quartet explores how we tend to cast these shadowy moments aside and instead use black and white moments in our lives to define our purpose.


The fourth movement, "Horror Vacui" ("a fear of empty spaces") is a brilliant use of two musical elements - a fugue, and a tongue-in-cheek syncopated melody in the manner of Scott Joplin and American ragtime. As the movement progresses, the quartet creates a range of different textures and sounds which fluctuate between these two elements. Near the end it becomes clear how the satirical melody resolves, before the quartet erupts into a volcano of manic tremolo. As Matthew explains, "satire" was the key to this movement, and the fugue is served to the listener with a wide sardonic grin.


Matthew is a DMA Composition candidate at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, studying with Kristin Kuster and Michael Daugherty. His previous awards include the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award, and the Maurice Gardner Composition Award from the American Viola Society.




Matthew Browne, String Quartet no. 1 "A Penumbral Eclipse"


Where are you from?

From Monument, Colorado.  Currently live in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


What got you interested in composition?

I got interested in composition mainly from playing saxophone in my high school band, as well as having an affinity for film music.  I decided to start writing music after watching the “Rite of Spring” sequence in the film “Fantasia” for the hundredth time, something finally just clicked.


Who have been your biggest musical influences?

I have many musical influences, and they change constantly.  I generally get excited (and a little obsessed) about whatever I am listening to at the moment.  To name a few influences: György Ligeti, Alfred Schnittke, John Corigliano, Stravinsky, The Beatles, Queen, Buddy Rich, and Frank Zappa.


What are some challenges or advantages when writing for string quartet?

Some advantages of writing for string quartet are that it is a very well established ensemble with an immense and diverse repertoire to learn from.  It has been the “go to” chamber ensemble for composers to write for for hundreds of years.  This is also the challenge for writing for string quartet, I think.  Because there are so many fantastic and diverse pieces for the ensemble, it is very difficult to make your mark on the genre, to really do something new and unique.


Anything else you wish to say about your piece String Quartet no. 1 "A Penumbral Eclipse"?

This piece was written for and in collaboration with the Tesla String Quartet.  I’d like to thank them for their input and suggestions, many of which make the piece what it is.


The Villiers Quartet performs Movement IV "Horror Vacui" of Matthew Browne's String Quartet no. 1 "A Penumbral Eclipse" for the VQ New Works Competition online Semifinal Round. View the video at


Matthew Browne's website:


A New Chapter - from Tamaki

July 1, 2014

I like the moment of guessing game, like when I was a child as I sat down on a seat at the cinema, or opened the page of a new novel just picked up from the station, thinking "What’s this?" and "What’s next?"


Reading all the compositions sent to the New Works Competition from across the world was just like that, for me personally. Constantly thinking "What’s this?" and "What’s next?" I am genuinely amazed at how everyone’s creative mind works - NEW ideas, experimentation, texture, feeling, drama, etc.


We are all personal, and therefore the way we connect to the music is also personal. You either write music, or play it, or listen to it - there is no right or wrong way of connecting to the music. For me, it all comes down to knowing the person and their personal creative mind. It is same for new music, for traditional music from Bach to Bartok, and when collaborating with other genres of artists.  As I go deeply into the centre and insight of this new music from the competition, it gives me the sensation of getting to know that composer. And that is my root of fascination for playing music - finding out the creative source on paper (music) and creating it in a space as a moment-to-moment work of art.


I am sure that you will enjoy listening to our 6 semi finalists of this year's competition. Each piece had something which fascinated the Villiers Quartet. Having said that, many other entries also had great things. It was difficult to choose our six semifinalists. I do truly appreciate all the applicants’ creative energy itself. Thanks for being part of 2014 competition. Here is a new chapter. You choose the finalists, so vote in the semifinal round.



Message from James

June 4, 2014

Busy busy times,  as ever with this job it's truly relentless. Quartet is slowly making its way through the many many entries we received, all very interesting and varied, quite different from last time which is intriguing. Results out for a new video out later this week and we are asking for everyone you either entered the competition or would like to to tweet Facebook it!!!! Thanks JD

Words of Wisdom

January 2, 2014

We're looking for your words of wisdom. Share on our Facebook wall!

VQ New Works Competition

January 2, 2014

The Villiers Quartet announces the 2014 VQ New Works Competition. This competition is open to an international field of new and emerging composers writing for string quartet.

The field will be narrowed to 6 works, which will be recorded and posted on the Villiers Quartet website for online audience vote. Three finalists will be chosen via online voting and have their works performed at Kings Place, London, UK by the Villiers Quartet on September 21st, 2014. The winner will receive the prize of £1000 and a studio recording of their piece, plus inclusion of their work into the Villiers Quartet repertoire for upcoming seasons.

For more information and entry requirements, visit

Henry B. Stewart - Threnody/Images

October 25, 2013

Images to illustrate the composition Threnody/Images by Henry B. Stewart:

Movement I

Movement II

Words of Wisdom from Veronika Hagen

July 26, 2013

We're fans of Veronika Hagen, violist of the Hagen Quartet.  Here are some words of wisdom, taken from Strad Magazine, July 11, 2013:

"Great musicians dispel their own ego and give themselves up completely to the composer in order to recreate his music.

Every member of a quartet must be prepared to listen. They must also be curious, disciplined and have a sense of humour.

How players get on with one other is the greatest challenge for a quartet. One needs to learn both how to criticise and how to react to criticism oneself.

Almost all music is chamber music – even a solo sonata – because it is a constant exchange of voices and instruments.

I always look forward to going on stage. I imagine the expectation of the people in the audience, who are prepared to leave their everyday life for a while to experience something special. I am very touched that I am able to move something in them.

With teaching it is very important to decide whether or not, in addition to passing on technical and artistic skills, one also wants to be a psychotherapist.

People’s preconceptions of the viola have changed a lot in the past twenty or thirty years. Thanks to some magnificent performers, it has freed itself from a Cinderella-like existence. Anyone who doubts this cannot be taken seriously.  

The members of a quartet must have respect for one other – accept your colleagues as they are and work on yourself instead."

May 26 - Riho Maimets & Schubert Quintet

March 26, 2013

On May 26, 2013, the VQ perform the hauntingly beautiful Sanctus, by Riho Esko Maimets, winner of the international VQ New Works Competition.  They are joined by cellist Jamie Walton for a performance of Schubert's masterpiece, the String Quintet in C Major, D. 956.

Join the VQ Community!

February 25, 2013

Visit us on Facebook for all of our upcoming events. We also have a YouTube channel.