Making the strange sound familiar/The familiar sound strange
Simon Parkin's String Quartet No. 4 is seven movements long. Each movement is a variation on the original theme that is introduced in the first movement (played in the video by the VQ). The 5th movement is the exception - with a simple heading of "Senza Tempo," the instruction to the players is simply"Tune up, starting with the viola, as quietly and as sensitively as possible. Frame as a separate movement, but do nothing theatrical."
Filled with compact, dense harmonies, Parkin's composition is a quartet mashup of musical styles ranging from Beethoven to Richard Strauss, all tied together with Parkin's own take on variations of his opening theme. Written with flair and panache for interplay between the four instruments, the String Quartet No. 4 explores the idea of mixing musical styles and textures. The listener at once hears hints of familiar, recognisable music, which is then turned on its head to a completely different place.
Simon Parkin studied composition and piano at the University of Manchester and the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), studying composition under Anthony Gilbert. He has had many broadcasts on BBC Radio, Classic FM, Channel 4 and ITV, and is a regular pianist with the International Musicians Seminar Prussia Cove, and the Schleswig Holstein Music Festival. He lives in Manchester, UK and teaches as Head of Musicianship at the RNCM.
Where are you from?
I was born in Manchester, and trained as a pianist at the Yehudi Menuhin School. This was specialised, and intensive, and in many ways composition was a refuge there from the terrors of my piano teacher. The contact there with talented string players, I think, gave me a feel for the medium of the string quartet, as well as exposure to many of the great works written for the medium. My composition at the school was encouraged by, among others, Nadia Boulanger, who visited towards the end of her life, and I was also able to meet Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett.
What got you interested in composition?
It was an easy decision, then, to switch to composition as my main study at Manchester. My teacher there was Anthony Gilbert, a very perceptive and intelligent teacher with, it’s probably fair to say, a modernist aesthetic which I tried to simultaneously accommodate and subvert. After my training, I was employed at my places of former study. I presently head the Musicianship department at the RNCM in Manchester, where we combine aural training with improvisation, and I have taught composition and improvisation at both the Menuhin and the Purcell music schools.
Who have been your biggest musical influences?
My style of composition is, to say the least, eclectic. I have always tried to write what is inside my head, and the sound-track to my life is a confused mash-up of everything I have heard. My task as a composer, then, is to try to create some sort of coherence and order to my musical thought, as well as to create some interesting links and connections between styles and ideas. I am not interested in the search for the new as such; new becomes old increasingly quickly! I don’t reject modernism, either—it’s one more ingredient in the mix.
What are some challenges or advantages when writing for string quartet?
The challenge, and the pleasure, of writing for string quartet is that it is the perfect medium, beautifully balanced, integrated, with some of the dynamics of the family. So many masterpieces have been written for quartet that it is easy for the composer to be intimidated, or to reject the sounds that string instruments were created to make and treat them, instead, like badly designed percussion instruments. My style of composition, I feel, enables me to exploit, and maybe to extend just a little, the discoveries made by the great composers of the past.
Anything else you wish to say about your piece, String Quartet No. 4?
A brief description of the 4th quartet might give a little more insight into my approach to style: The original inspiration for the piece came from the Philip Dick science fiction novel, Ubik. I had originally planned to write a video opera based on this, but these plans broke down into a series of pieces. The quartet was a character study for Pat Conley, one of Dick’s many brittle and destructive female characters. In the book, she has the power to reset time, and she uses this power to try to create a more favourable outcome for herself. The quartet follows an emotional trajectory. The beginning is brash, overconfident and a bit bombastic (I thought Richard Strauss an appropriate model for this!). It turns out to be a hollow confidence, however, and the first movement (which is the one played in the video) starts to deteriorate and lose momentum. Pat presses the reset button for movements 2, 3 and 4, which make it increasingly obvious that things aren’t going to work out, becoming more fractured and desperate. The quartet then passes through a period of quiet introspection before re-emerging with a new-found inner strength. The use of late Beethoven references in the finale might sound hubristic, but it was the only thing I could think of to evoke the emotions I was after. The style, therefore, is the servant of the feeling.
I think that my aesthetic is the post-modernist one: to make the strange sound familiar, and the familiar sound strange.
The Villiers Quartet will perform Simon Parkin's String Quartet No. 4 for the VQ New Works Competition Final Round. Purchase tickets at