Edward Cowie-Quartets 3, 4 & 5 From where I sit, a player’s point of view (9/11/15)

Posted on November 10th, 2015 by

 Edward Cowie-Quartets 3, 4 & 5

From where I sit, a player’s point of view

Peter Sheppard Skaerved (9/11/15)

From the very first moment, in our very first rehearsal of Edward Cowie’s quartets, it was clear that this is unique quartet music. In performance, his players must counterpoint constant control of idea, of narrative, and light-foot technical mastery. This reflects the composer himself; he counterpoints musical command, polymath intellect, startling gifts as a graphic artist, and violinist. For all this complexity, the musical outcomes for player and listener are grace-filled clarity and beauty.

Edward Cowie, onstage with the Kreutzer Quartet, Wiltons Music Hall, November 2013

Edward Cowie, onstage with the Kreutzer Quartet, Wiltons Music Hall, November 2013

Whilst these three works all inhabiting the same rich world, and speak the same vernacular, they are completely different from each other. Quartet 3, on the surface, at least, uses the model, offered by Haydn, of a four-movement quartet, with a central slow movement/minuet pairing. Quartet 4 is a single-movement structure, a living object in constant metamorphosis. Quartet 5 is different yet again, a 24 movement set of ‘bagatelles’, which by its size, contradicts the miniature scale of its constituents. One result of this, is that we are challenged to accept constant change, or rather change as the constant. To hear this in slow motion, the central slow gesture of the  4th Quartet offers a paradigm, as the four players find a way to ‘bend’ intonation around the a series of mid-register notes, all seemingly presenting themselves as a ‘centre’, like the middle finger of the ‘Guidonian Hand’ , but settling on, but hardly resolving, to ‘E’. This slow morphing seems to model geological speeds; subduction, movement of tectonic plates, or the frozen movement of a cooled lava flow. But strangely it offers exactly the same imaginative challenge to us as the whiplash changes of speed the 3rd Quartet, or the Robin’s movements in the 5th. The only difference, is the rate at which change is perceived, and the sense that the foundation of everything shifting, turning, melting, evaporating….  At any given moment, in Cowie’s music, a bud is flowering, petals stiffening, colour blooming, fading, withering, drooping, dying – and a seed is revealed. The process of rebirth is always beginning.


Working closely with Cowie, I have observed, at close quarters, the effortless sweep of his imagination, from the powerful dynamic between the visual, aural and structural  pouring through, his works, its winged interchange between the minutiae of sound-making, timbre, rubato and voicing, through to a truly grand imaginative vision. He is fond of Heraclitus; working in detail on these three masterpieces over the past year, I found myself seeking out Lucretius’s ‘De rerum naturae’ (Lucretius was, himself a fan of the Greek). Lucretius and Cowie share a sense of the essential mutability of all things:

Omnia qua propter debent per inane quietum
aeque ponderibus non aequis concita ferri.

(All things must be, as a result, carried with similar weight but unequal speeds, through the silent void)[i]

This sums up the exciting contradiction which Cowie’s music offers us as players. On the on side-the challenges, of colour, precision and enormous virtuosity are almost classical ones. However, at the same time, its parameters constantly shift; a gesture which must be executed with enormous precision of ensemble, is promptly required to be precisely un-coordinated, if you like, exactly wrong. It’s impossible for me to think of this without thinking of the constant recalibrations, ebb and flow, in the world around us: a ‘murmuration of Starlings’, movements, seen and heard of leaves in gusts of wind, the constant shift between coordination and entropy. Edward offers this ‘nature  of things’ as the most naturally classical process, as if the Ionic scrolls on our instruments might  unfurl as fern fronds, the Acanthus Spinosus leaves on  classical  capitals, blush with their  natural greens and purples to  shake in the winds. It feels as if is something that one has never done before, and then utterly natural, like breathing, or sleeping.

Edward Cowie-Robin (from the 5th Quartet)

Kreutzer Quartet 2015

In rehearsal, discussing his music, Edward insist: ‘My music must never sound modern. It has to be natural.’  Nature which Cowie loves so much continues to evolve, marrying, like his music, enormous complexity and profound simplicity.

[i] Lucretius DRN II 238