Interview on Collaboration
University or York Music Press 2008
The Kreutzer Quartet have commissioned countless (how many?) new works over the years they have been together – what is the motive for commissioning new works when the string quartet repertoire is already so rich?
I think that it is worth beginning by saying that the members of the quartet all have very diverse interests which feed into our work together. It is an amazing privilege to work with my three friends, who all bring together so many different approaches and passions. But the answer to your question is simple; the job of musicians is to make music. Whether the music already exists on paper, whether the composer is alive or dead, the task is the same, so it is the same for us, if we are working with a 18 year old composer in Kosova, like Liburn Jupolli, or playing the Grosse Fugue. The great trumpeter James Watson, is blunter about this. He insists: “There is no such thing as good or bad music, just…MUSIC.”
You have over 150 new work dedicated to you, and have worked with composers as varied as Naji Hakim, Dmitri Smirnov and Hans Werner Henze, as well as our own Sadie Harrison Thomas Simaku and Jeremy Dale Roberts – are there any relationships with composers that stand out for you?
I have been very lucky in this. I think that this all stemmed from the six years that I studied with the greatest of all British violinists, Ralph Holmes, from the age of twelve. He introduced me to the ‘questing’ approach, which he used in his ground-breaking explorations of Delius and Bax, as well as his work with Richard Rodney Bennett and Peter Dickinson, to name but two. This was emphasised for me, after his death, by my study with Louis Krasner, who premiered the Berg, Schoenberg and Casella concerti. For him, the collaborative process was a duty. I would not say that any one composer stands out, for the simple reason, as I said before, that the most important composer for me, is the one whose music is on the practice desk in front of me. Today, those are Ilhan Usmanbas, whose solo works I am playing in Ankara next week, and Bach, but just because I am playing the Sonata cycle on Sunday.
What proportion of the KQs repertoire is made up of new music?
I cant define new music this way, but would say that a large proportion of our work is to do with discovery. That discovery, however, might, as this spring, involve the Op 48 Reicha Quartets, or returning to David Matthews’ amazing 4th Quartet-which is 25 years old.
Composers often tell me that they write a piece with individual performers or ensembles in mind. As a performer, do you feel that you build up an empathy with a composer’s output over time, and how helpful is it to have a composer present at rehearsals and concerts?
I can only work with a composer, and I know that I speak for my colleagues, if the ‘workshop door’ is open. This means that we want to be in at the start, when the piece, sometimes, is no more than an idea. The more that we can be involved from the foundations up, the more we can be involved with the pieces as dramatic roles. So, with composers such as Thomas, Jeremy and Sadie, the communication about the pieces is ongoing. With a piece such as Croquis , which is one of the most significant contributions to the String Trio since Schoenberg, this conversation has stretched into many areas to which the piece pertains. I like composers who enjoy this process. I was very touched, when Thomas turned up in Athens because he realised that I had a day free, and then we could hang out and work on his solo violin music without pressure, giving us time to sit outside with a coffee, to talk about other things.
Do composers ever revise works as a result of a play through or performance, and if so do you feel the resultant work to be more of collaboration than a composition?
You used the platform of the Soundbox lectureship at the Royal Academy to workshop Jeremy Dale Roberts’ Croquis, and have led similar workshops in Turkey, Cyprus and Korea – how important do you think education is in shaping the next generation of contemporary music audiences?
I am not interested in the audience for contemporary music. I am interested in the audience for all music. Education is for all those involved in the process-I learn as much from this as anyone else. The most important thing is the open door, presenting music in a way that all can be challenged and entranced.
During the Spring Festival the Kreutzer Quartet will be leading a workshop for student composers – in this digital multimedia age, do you still find young composers are interested in the demands and discipline of writing for string quartet?
Yes, absolutely. Don’t forget, that as Michael Finnissy has put it, a string quartet is just “four people in a room”. Technology has always tended to enhance the excitement that surrounds people communicating directly, if you like, without media. The flood of works from composers of all ages, and the fascination of audiences, is unstoppable. This is a global phenomenon.
What led you to the music of Thomas Simaku, and why did you chose these works to record?
We met Thomas at York, after a performance of Ligeti 2, which he seemed to like! From then on, he has been a constant friend and colleague. He has written a Quartet, a solo violin piece, a violin duo, and a concerto (violin) for us. We selected the works on the Naxos disc with him to form a natural arc.
What advice would you give to young ensembles or soloists looking to commission their first works?
Collaborate! This is going to sound harsh, but if musicians are ‘looking to commission’ , they need to retrace some steps, and make composers central to their performance life. Without composers, performers have nothing to say. In order to understand the processes by which music by dead composers was created, you need to be involved in the processes of making it with those who are with us now. I learnt more about Beethoven from Rochberg or Matthews, about Mozart from Henze, about Stravinsky from Sadie Harrison, than any amount of research. In addition, it is important to make this a quotidian relationship, and that it should not have conditioned by notions of significance. If any composer of any, is willing to write for you, then grab the opportunity to collaborate.