April 3, 2012

Adam Johnson and "Four Artists"


Sometimes inspiration comes in short bursts.  Adam Johnson's Four Artists was written in just 2 weeks and was inspired by the colourful lives of four visual artists from the 20th century: American icon Jackson Pollock, Berlin artist George Grosz, British artist Dora Carrington, and Turner Prize nominee Tracey Emin.

As a conceptual piece, Four Artists seeks to transform art and the artist's personality into music.  This marriage of music + art interested us, because why shouldn't the different creative disciplines inform each other?  The opening of the first movement, Jackson Pollock, is an aural "splattering" of notes upon a calm, serene canvas.  The lower three instruments play quiet tranquillo sul tasto voicings, while the first violin erupts in a spiccato vigoroso line.  Tracy Emin's movement, the one we perform online, displays the growing spunk and fortitude of this celebrated member of the "Young British Artists" and her rise as a media sensation.  Starting out with pizzicato playing in the quartet, the movement jumps time signatures and builds to a crescendo that ends in a flourish.  Four Artists shows how music can become a representation of what visual artists try to express.  And as four musicians within the quartet, we also bring our interpretation into the mix.

Adam is a conductor, composer and pianist living in London.  He is Artistic Director of the Northern Lights Symphony Orchestra.  He studied composition under Anthony Gilbert at the Royal Northern College of Music.

Adam Johnson Q&A

Where are you from?
I am from Newcastle upon Tyne, in the North East of UK. I grew up at a time when contemporary music wasn't being pioneered in the north of England. However my school where I held a Music Scholarship, and my head of music Stephen J. Pettitt gave me amazing opportunities to experiment with, and showcase many of my earliest (unsophisticated!) works. I will always be grateful for that.
I was brought up in a household blissfully free of contemporary music, which gave me the necessary scope to develop an inner sound.
What got you hooked on composition?
A lot of the time it was essential to get the music or sounds out of my cluttered head! As a child composer I had no technique and my knowledge of the technical brilliance of Bartok, Stravinsky or Messiaen would be a revelation when I won a scholarship to study with Prof. Anthony Gilbert at The Royal Northern College of Music. I quickly realized that a regular composition "practise" method was not in my system and I could only work well when the music came to me - usually in a noisy night club, surrounded by the clamor of a weekend rave!
Who have been your biggest musical influences?
When I was studying with the extremely charismatic Prof. Anthony Gilbert, he exposed me to Messiaen, Cage, Janacek, Henze, Saariaho, Dutilleux and I found their musical language extremely powerful. I was (and still am) totally against "squeaky gate" music as it never relates to the regular concert-goer, and the music of Aulis Sallinen, Eduard Tubin, Tauno Marttinen has influenced my relation to the basic requirement of rhythm and emotion. Equally I find inspiration from modern masters such as Björk, Radiohead and Sigur Ros.
What are some of the advantages or challenges in writing for string quartet?
This is my 4th Quartet and I wrote it very quickly. However the same obstacles presented themselves. I was constantly aware of texture (usually by thinking of 3 not 4 players), and allowing the space of pitch-register to resonate over each tone. Another release in this piece is not confining the work to expectation, but a natural and organic motivic progression throughout the strictly structured harmony.
Anything else you wish to say about your piece "Four Artists"?
As each movement is dedicated to Four Artists (Jackson Pollock, George Grosz, Dora Carrington, Tracey Emin) one difficulty was to balance mirroring their style musically as well as an abstract comment on their vision.
In the case of the middle movements (Grosz and Carrington) it was inspired by the events in their personal lives, and the outer movements (Pollock and Emin) in honour of their place in society at the time in which they lived.
The artists I have chosen commented artistically on reflection and relation to immediate modern life, which is precisely what I aim to achieve in the musical language of my work.

March 30, 2012

Niccolo Athens and "Et in Arcadia Ego"

As four musicians who have come together to perform as a quartet, we often look back at our collective experiences as working musicians in the UK.  London in particular is a unique city for music, unrivalled anywhere else in the world for the extreme variety of musical opportunities, jobs and gigs.  West end musicals?  Check.  World-class symphony orchestras? Check.  Pop recording sessions?  Check.  Solitary cellist in the basement of a club performing Ligeti by candlelight?  Check.  For us, chamber music is our panacea, a remedy for the busy days of running from gig to gig as part of the industry.  It is a moment when the four of us can take time to explore our own ideals in music together.  Searching for that ideal is a continuous process, as we try to find the right balance between our lives, music, and the future.
We were drawn to Niccolo Athens and his piece Et in Arcadia Ego – Meditation for String Quartet because his music addressed the notion of searching for such an ideal.  In many ways, Niccolo's piece is a nod to the traditional sounds of a late-Romantic string quartet—after coming out of a sustained high C in the violins, the line descends into the lower registers of each instrument, creating a warm, lush, romantic view of sound.  Niccolo throws the quartet into a melee of rich harmonies, with the music constantly searching for a resolution.  Despite these opportunities, however, we never find our answer, only to return back to the question posed in the beginning of the quartet:  What are we searching for?
Like Niccolo's work, music is constantly evolving and re-defining itself (as is the way that it is being shared with audiences).  Although the 6 semifinalists from this competition have written new works for string quartet, they were also bound by a formidable genre of tradition.  With so many great works in existence, how much further can the string quartet develop?  It is difficult to put one's voice forward without being compared to giants of the past, and we were inspired by these young composers who rose to the challenge.
Niccolo is a doctoral candidate in composition at Cornell University, studying under Steven Stucky and Roberto Sierra.  He completed his undergraduate degree at the Juilliard School under the instruction of Samuel Adler, and he is a recipient of the BMI Student Composer Award.

Niccolo Athens Q&A

Where are you from?
San Antonio, Texas - born and raised. My parents are not really musical, but some members of my extended family have been amateur musicians.

What got you hooked on composition?
I played viola in public school starting at age 8, and got more serious about music after attending the Interlochen Center for the Arts during the summer of 2002. Later in my early teenage years, I always felt compelled to go home and try to compose something in the style of what we were playing in orchestra (whether it was Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, whatever) ... so this is where my musical roots really lie, and it is how I slowly taught myself harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration.  A few years before going off to college, I began taking composition lessons with a local composer, and thus began the variously exciting, painful, and disorienting process of trying to absorb and figure out how to deal with developments in modern music.  Often, I feel like I am still in the midst of this process!

Who have been your biggest musical influences?
This is hard to say - I don't often compose by taking other composers as models except in the most general way, rather I try to develop my materials, whatever they are, from the ground up.  (Although of course this doesn't mean that there aren't many points of overlap with other composers, only that they are either coincidental or the result of what my subconscious musical instincts have retained.)

I love almost all of the "mainstay" composers of the classical canon, but especially Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms.  Some other composers whose music I very much enjoy include Nielsen, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Warlock, Hovhaness, Barber, Sibelius, Takemitsu ... I could go on.

What are some of the advantages or challenges in writing for string quartet?
I began my musical life as a violist, and played in many quartets growing up, so writing for string instruments has always been quite natural for me. 

The most difficult thing for me when writing for string quartet is the contrapuntal discipline required.  Unlike when writing for a larger ensemble such as the orchestra, or an ensemble including piano, extra musical voices cannot be added and dropped very easily as they are needed.  One must be careful to lay out only the most structurally important lines as economically as possible among the four members of the group. 

Anything else you wish to say about your piece "Et in Arcadia Ego"?
Not all of my music is so gloomy!  I just had a Piano Trio premiered which is somewhat neo-Classical, and I think also very vigorous and full of life.  In fact, that may be a more representative work, but I am also very fond of this one, and it represents a very different side of my music.

In this string quartet I wanted to approach very serious and personal subject matter through exploration of the Wagnerian ideal of endless lyrical melody.  My vision for the piece was loosely inspired by the Prelude to Lohengrin (although it has a very different character from Wagner's music, and of course a very different harmonic language).  The form of the piece is circular: the music begins floating in the heavens, then slowly descends, after which the core of the piece unfolds, expressive and lyrical.  Then at the close of the work, the music slowly ascends, ending in the same place it began.

March 30, 2012

Hi there couple of things. Check out our YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/thevilliersquartet where all our latest live recordings can be found.  There's the last concert Seven Last Words of Christ, plus the UK quartet premiere of Andrew Waggoner's My Penelope. --James

March 29, 2012

Henry B. Stewart and "Threnody/Images"


Whenever we learn a new work from the great quartet repertoire, we always look forward to finding each composer's signature voice--the way they create melodic lines, or end cadences, or have distinctive rhythmical patterns.  It's also fun to discover how composers influenced each other, and to hear references made to their teachers or colleagues.  Which tricks did Mozart learn from the Haydn quartets, for instance?  Or how did Shostakovich create his rhythmic pulses differently to Bartok's?  For young composers, finding one's individual voice takes years of practise and experimentation.  From all of the entries we received, we were impressed by how much we could learn about the composer's personality through their music.

The quartet Threnody/Images came to us from Henry B. Stewart, a student at Goshen College in Indiana.  Written in two movements, Henry sent two images to accompany his score.  These two images were central to the inspiration for his piece.  The first movement, "Threnody I" was accompanied by a photograph of a woman.  Photograph by Gary Goldberg:

The second movement was based on a hallucination of a fire that Henry experienced during a state of delirium as a child.  Henry explains of his experience, "My vision was of a great, terrible, black fire on the horizon of an empty plain.  The [second] movement begins by falling into delirium, then the unsettling plain is heard in the syncopated section, followed by the building intensity of the fire to its full, raging power."  Digital sketch by Mohammad Mahdi Rassoulipour:

In Henry's music, we found much of this intense power as part of his composer's voice.  His music immediately captured our attention not through loud noises or musical pyrotechnics, but rather through an uneasy quietness and sense of foreboding in his piece.  We recorded the first movement of Threnody/Images with its quietly dramatic opening. The cello begins with a low C drone, followed by a haunting viola solo that takes shape over tremolando effects in the violins.  The opening of this movement reminded us of Shostakovich, sparse and cold, before warming up and developing into an angst-ridden climax of chords in the upper registers of the strings.

Henry is a sophomore at Goshen College, where he is dual major in biochemistry and music composition.  He is a composition student of Dr. Jorge Muñiz of Indiana University South Bend.  Threnody/Images is his first work for string quartet.

Henry B. Stewart Q&A

Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
What got you hooked on composition?
It was writing a piano trio in my freshman year of college (under the instruction of Dr. Jorge Muñiz) that consummated my love for composition.  After writing the trio, and now Threnody|Images, I understand that I compose because of the fundamental power of sharing an idea, aesthetic or emotion with others through music.
Who have been your biggest musical influences?
I grew up listening to Rachmaninoff, Dvořák, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and the Beatles. Penderecki, Schönberg, Sibelius, and Shostakovich have been recurring influences for the last two years.  Also, I tend to derive a lot of influence from film scores, such as Johnny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's score for The Social Network.
What are some of the advantages or challenges in writing for string quartet?
As a chamber group, string quartets have impeccable control over corporate expression.  I think both my greatest fascination and the greatest challenge for quartet writing is incorporating and balancing polyphonic and symphonic textures.

Anything else you wish to say about your piece "Threnody|Images"?
Threnody|Images was written about two images.  I have found that these images are very central to the perception of the music.  They are viewable here: http://imgur.com/a/WrVRB.

March 27, 2012

Chris Roe and Jetez!

Jetez! jumped out to us like a flash of light in this competition. At just over 5 minutes, Chris Roe's piece presented a concise musical idea filled with texture, unique harmonies, and rhythmic challenges.

Taking its inspiration from watching people throw stones off the edge of a cliff, Jetez! similarly throws notes back and forth the instruments of the string quartet.  Alternating between intense glissandi and fast-paced semiquavers, Chris uses these techniques to create the energy build-up before being thrown over the cliff, as well as the suspension of soaring through the air.  The piece also travels in waves--melodic lines climb, and then fall.
One of the constant challenges we work on as a quartet is achieving unity of sound.  How does a quartet of four separate instruments, all with different colours, timbres, sounds, etc., work together to create one harmonious, balanced sound?  There is no easy answer...except that we have to work hard for it.  Jetez! in many ways helped us, because the quick figures passing between each instrument forced  us to hear the line as if sung by one single instrument--which is essentially what a string quartet should aim to be!

Despite the tricky rhythms (jumping between 5/8 and 7/8 meter is no easy task!) and technical challenges of Jetez!, we were struck by the harmonies and intervals Chris used.  Weaving rich harmonies through seventh chords--no doubt due to Chris's background as a jazz pianist--the middle section of Jetez! erupts into a brief jazz riff with pizzicato accompaniment before falling once again into soaring glissandi. The sound fades away in the end, perhaps representing the last object being thrown into the air and taking flight, floating away and escaping gravity.

Chris Roe is a composition student at the Royal College of Music, London, studying under Kenneth Hesketh.  He is winner of the 2011 International Antonín Dvořak Composition Competition, and his works have been performed by the RCM Wind Ensemble, London Sinfonietta, and vocal ensemble Ottovoci.

Chris Roe Q&A

Where are you from?
I live in London now, and grew up in a town near to London called Sevenoaks. However, I also lived in Manchester for three years whilst at university there.

What got you hooked on composition?
I always enjoyed improvising at the piano (usually very slow, atmospheric Debussy imitations!) and sometimes would write them down. But my first taste of composition as I now know it (ie working on a piece past these initial stages, writing it down, giving parts for other people to play etc.) was when I wrote Millennium Swing for the New Beacon school big band!  I'm not sure it actually had anything to do with the Millennium, unless its minor key was an attempt to comment on the Y2K panic gripping the world!  But hearing something that I had imagined in my head being played by other people instead of just by me sitting at a piano or computer screen was a great experience, and one of the main things that drove me to keep composing throughout my time at Sevenoaks School then onto Manchester University and now the Royal College of music. 

Who have been your biggest musical influences?
Of course there are too many influences to mention here, and I'm sure that a lot are subconscious, but I was always drawn to the music of Debussy and Ravel, particularly by the harmonic colours that their work brought into focus. Then, struck by its connection with the 'French' harmonic language, amongst other things, I started becoming more interested in jazz, particularly the piano playing of the legendary Bill Evans. His characteristic voicing of altered seventh chords, carrying on from the French tradition, continues to influence my approach to harmony today.
Another recurring feature of my music, I think, is its dynamism and rhythmic energy. My biggest influence for this side of my music is probably Stravinsky, with jazz musicians from Charlie Parker to the Brecker brothers also influencing the shape and momentum of a lot of my musical ideas.

More recently important influences for me have been composers such as Phillipe Hurel, Ana Sololovic and Unsuk Chin, as well as the insights gained from my most recent studies with renowned composer Kenneth Hesketh.

What are some of the advantages or challenges in writing for string quartet?
Though it can be challenging writing for a group of instruments with such a legacy of great pieces written for it, and perhaps a more limited palette of instrumental colour available than other ensembles, I think the main advantage of the string quartet is the similarity between the instruments. This is unlike any other established type of ensemble that I can think of (except maybe the piano duo) and in Jetez! I tried to use this to my advantage by rapidly passing lines and gestures (often descending glissandi) around the quartet without changing the quality of the sound between instruments. In this way, each player can quickly switch from taking the lead to an accompanying role, without affecting the overall balance.

Anything else you wish to say about your piece "Jetez!" ?
The programme note goes into more detail about the ideas behind Jetez!, but the most important idea that I want to come across in the music (helped by the intensely energetic playing in this performance) is the physical action of throwing an object into the wind; stored up energy (like a coiled spring) which is suddenly released to disappear over the edge. As a good friend recently summed up, Jetez! - 'a piece inspired by some French blokes throwing stones.'

March 21, 2012

Sunday, March 25 at 3:00PM

Haydn - The Seven Last Words of Christ
Andrew Waggoner - String Quartet No. 4 "My Penelope"
Tickets:  £10 General admission, £8 Concessions (Children under 10 free)

Hear us this Sunday for a concert celebrating the Easter season.  We perform Haydn's dramatic work The Seven Last Words of Christ, and we are joined by actor Richard Mulholland in a reading of  "Poem After the Seven Last Words" by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Mark Strand.  We finish the programme with Quartet No. 4, My Penelope by American composer Andrew Waggoner, written for the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.


  Richard Mulholland                                                  The Villiers Quartet

St. Andrew's Church, Hammersmith & Fulham
St. Andrew's Road, London  W14 9SX
Nearest Tube:  Barons Court or West Kensington
TICKETS  £10 General admission, £8 Concessions (Children under 10 free), available online or on the door

Here's a short video of Andrew Waggoner describing his work "String Quartet No. 4, My Penelope"


March 20, 2012

Riho Maimets & "Sanctus"

The moment we heard the opening notes of Sanctus by Riho Maimets, we were immediately taken to a world filled with mysticism and meditation.  According to Riho, his quartet is "an exploration of mysticism and spirituality in its different forms."  With this theme at the heart of his quartet, we came to know Riho's music.  We found the mood of Sanctus to be quite fitting, especially as we were recording in a church in central London.


Sanctus is a quartet in five movements, and takes musical influences from a wide range of religious and ethnic musics, including Eastern Orthodox chant, Renaissance motets, and Yiddish song.  Over the course of the competition, we received many compositions which used musical influences other than the "western classical music idiom" as their source of inspiration, particularly folk or ethnic influences.  From such a wide field of international composers, it was fantastic to receive string quartets written in the style of Egyptian music, Irish donegal fiddling, Mexican music, American bluegrass, and Chinese music, for instance.  Sanctus particularly struck us, not only for the way Riho successfully transferred folk and ethnic music into the genre of string quartet, but also for the overall mood of mysticism and spirituality he created.


For the recording, we chose to perform the second movement of Sanctus, which actually seems to be the least "mystical" of the movements in the quartet, instead reminding us of a spirited klezmer scratch band.  After a mesmerising cello solo in the first movement (written in the style of Ashkenazim liturgical singing), the cello then leads into the second movement, starting with its 3/4 dance meter.  Throughout the dance, short solo melodies pass between instruments, and we all get a chance to have our klezmer moment!


A composer of Estonian and Canadian background, Riho attended both the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, and the University of Toronto Faculty of Music, where he currently studies under Christos Hatzis.  Having taken lessons and masterclasses from Arvo Pärt, Krzysztof Penderecki, and R. Murray Schafer, he continues the exploration of mysticism in his music.  He is the winner of the 2011 Karen Kieser Prize in Canadian Music.


Riho Maimets Q&A

Where are you from?
I was born in Toronto, Canada into an Estonian family.  The Estonian language and culture were always dominant in our home, so I feel that answering your question with a simple "Toronto" would be giving only half the story.
What got you hooked on composition?
I grew up playing piano and violin.  When I played the pieces then I was always more interested in what lay underneath the music - the composer, their historical time period, where they came from; the music and how it was created.  I began composing music when I was around 15.
Who have been your biggest musical influences?
I suppose deep down inside I have always loved early music most of all - that's music that predates the Baroque.  I love Renaissance polyphony, Gregorian Chant, the early polyphony of the Notre Dame School - Pérotin.  I am now also getting more and more fascinated with monophonic melody.  As is perhaps evident in Sanctus, I am also very partial to folk music traditions, including both my own Estonian roots as well as those from all over.  Sanctus is one of the first pieces of mine that explores folk music through a spiritual/religious lens.
What are some of the advantages or challenges in writing for string quartet?
One of the biggest disadvantages in writing for string quartet is that the genre is so overwhelmingly saturated with repertoire.  I suppose a composer who really wants to be original in this genre will find it challenging, although not impossible.  There are definitely many advantages to composing for the string quartet.  It is, for example, extremely practical.  String quartets can be found all over the world and many of these are really quite amazing.  If one is fortunate enough to write an outstanding piece, then I think it is possible for the work to spread like wildfire throughout the string quartet world.  Compositionally speaking, the string quartet is very well balanced.  There are slight timbral differendes in each instrument, but they also share a lot in common.  I also like the ability to write polyphonically for each instrument.  Double, triple and quadruple stops, string crossings and the use of harmonics are some of my favourites.
Anything else you wish to say about your piece "Sanctus"?
Sanctus is an exploration of the meaning of the word "holy."  This is a very special word, which, I fear, has become obsolete for a great many people.  I believe that one can find great happiness in worship and humility.  This piece is not exactly liturgical, as what one might at first expect.  It is just an exploration of the concept through different prisms.  

March 14, 2012

Roger Zare & "Road Trip"

The sound of the car engine revving up to get ready for a long trip was one that resonated with all of us in the Villiers Quartet, with James & Tamaki having toured all over the US, Carmen driving the freeways as a teenager in California, and Nick being our resident Formula One fanatic!

We were inspired by Roger's vivid programme notes about Road Trip and the style he chose to represent the feelings of freedom and elation of hitting the road. It was interesting to find a string quartet that was based on such specific geographic programmatic material, and one that seemed to musically describe this so immediately. Many of the pieces we received in this competition were programmatic, telling a specific story or drama in musical terms, giving us further insight into the subject matter that young composers today use as their source of inspiration.

Though we recorded only the first movement of Roger's work for the semifinal round, we had fun discovering the other two movements. The second movement launches into a soulfully raucous blues tune in the viola ("How many amazing blues viola solos are there like that?!" says Carmen), which then cleverly erupts into mariachi violin playing, representing the US border crossing into Mexico. The last movement, with its muted violins and harmonics, struck us as a haunting depiction of the foggy coast of Big Sur, the Northern Californian retreat for writers such as Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller.

Learning from Roger's score, we decided to approach the first movement with a Ravel-like sense of sound—the running semiquavers gave the excitement of the open road, but they had to be tempered and supportive of the melody in the cello and first violin. This contrast of melody vs semiquavers creates the buoyant feeling of cruising along the highway, sitting solidly in the car (preferably a red 1967 Mustang convertible) while the wheels spin below. The movement ends with a nostalgic retreat into harmonics as the semiquavers finally fade away.

As a student at the composition programme at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Roger Zare has written for ensembles of all sizes and shapes, including a piece for piano, ping pong balls, and obligato page turner!  He has been a fellow in composition at the Aspen Music Festival and a recipient of the Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Roger Zare Q & A

Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Sarasota, Florida, USA.
What got you hooked on composition?
The first piece I wrote was a string orchestra work that I worked on collaboratively with one of my friends when I was 14. My high school orchestra director programmed it, and getting to hear that piece was such an amazing thrill that I knew I wanted to be a composer from that moment on.
Who have been your biggest musical influences?
Possibly my two biggest influences have been JS Bach and Gyorgy Ligeti. I also greatly admire the music of countless living composers, including Christopher Theofanidis, Michael Nyman, Aaron Jay Kernis, Poul Ruders, and Einojuhani Rautavaara.
What are some of the advantages or challenges in writing for string quartet?
After spending years listening to and studying string quartets by the great composers, the intimidation I felt from the history of the genre was my biggest challenge. As I wrote Road Trip, I tried to ignore the history and just write a very personal piece.
Anything else you wish to say about your piece "Road Trip"?
Even though the roads that I reference in the piece are very specific to the United States, the excitement of heading on a long vacation trip is global. As a kid, my road trips were some of my most memorable experiences, and I had a lot of fun reflecting on them while writing Road Trip. I hope everyone else has fun listening to it!

March 13, 2012

Here are the results of voting from Week #1 of the VQ New Works Semifinal Round.  Three more weeks to go!

March 5, 2012
The VQ New Works Competition
Semifinal round of online voting now open.
or click on "VOTE" in the menu
to watch the performances and decide who will be in the finals!