Edward Cowie. The Quartet as habitat. Some thoughts. 7 12 19

Posted on December 7th, 2019 by

Playing Edward Cowie – a player-collaborator’s point of view

[still needing proof-reading, forgive me!]

The composer’s desk. Edward Cowie’s workspace, Cumbria 2019

Every collaboration, with every composer, is different. Each time I am fortunate enough to be in this position, I notice  the balances, the natures of relative contributions to scores and performances, seen from each side (composer and performer), are subtly changed. This observation is not confined to the interchange with performer to composer, but within each discrete collaborative  ‘duo’, the gyre-like mechanisms of what one might style ‘mutual interferences’ alter, from piece to piece that, as it is essayed, changing the relationships.

I have worked closely with Edward Cowie over the past 7 years. Although I knew and admired his music, from early in my playing life, the opportunity to work together did not present itself, until the Kreutzers premiered his revised 3rd Quartet  in 2013. This led to extensive collaboration and recording of that work, with the 4th  & 5th Quartets for an NMC disc released in 2016.

By that point, a dialogue had built up, both in the rehearsal room, in the ‘composer’s workshop’, if I can call it that, and about, around our many shared interests. It soon became clear that both Ed (if I may) and I were in the same, somewhat unusual position, of having much of our work rooted in our respective practices as graphic artists. As will be clear from this booklet, many, although not all, of this composer’s compositions begin life in exquisite sketches and drawings (nearly always marked out by a gem-like precision of colour and extreme sensitivity to texture). Such a procedure has been fundamental to my own work at the violin, since my teens. In both our cases, one cannot necessarily put a divide between the respective ‘hemispheres’ of the  work, but,  at the same time, we are unwilling to say that one is merely supportive, preparatory, of the other. Rather, we have discovered that we both felt that our respective practices, with instrument, score, drawing pad or pencil in hand, are  all at once both self-contained and integral to the others. This was, and remains a vital point of contact in our work together.

The next element in this  collaboration revolves around our relationship to the instrument, the violin, itself. Ed was a violinist himself for many years, which means that, whatever the manifold technical challenges of his music  (whether writing for violin, viola or ‘cello)  there’s always a profound sense that it  grows from, or even alights upon the instruments in the most natural manner. This naturalness extends to his understanding of chamber music. Appropriately enough,  In the many conversations we have about music, the composer who comes up most frequently, is Joseph Haydn. Indeed, talking with Cowie about the impact, on both of us, of playing and studying Haydn’s quartets and, particularly, piano trios, as young musicians, gave me a window into his expectations of what it is that he expects his music to ‘do’.

It is this sense of the ‘natural’, or perhaps I should say, Nature (with a capital ‘N’), which underpins every aspect of Cowie’s music,  and what he expects of his performers. Cowie began his life in the field of maths and science: his understanding of these areas stretches  to where I cannot follow. However, I can embrace his sense, of the importance of observation, the understanding that we need to look at, listen to, touch, taste and  smell, every aspect of the natural world, and be constantly sentient of our impact, both negative, and occasionally, positive on it. This is indistinguishable, in my understanding of his worldview, from the obligation of the artist. So I can say that my understanding of what he hopes, and let’s be honest, demands of me as a performer, is conditioned just as much by birdwatching with him from a hide on the Cumbrian nature reserve which he helps to manage, as the discussions of up-bows and down-bows in the workroom. They both, if you like, inhabit the same space.

‘Habitat’ is a word which Cowie uses frequently about his music. In the case of the 6th Quartet heard on this disc, he asked each member of us in the  quartet, to consider their place in the ensemble, in the score, and in our  placement on the stage, as habitat,  a place to live, to sing, to work, to be born and maybe,  to die. As I write this, I can hear the birds outside my window: there’s a family group of Wrens who lurk in the laurel bush directly below where I am writing, whilst a pair of Dunnock chatter away in the Blackthorn tree level with my desk. At any given time of day, the tree is visited by raucous Parakeets (usually at about  9 am), a family of five  Magpies (who use the tree to wash, and as jumping-=off–point to peck grubs from the wall of the building opposite), and a Robin who this afternoon, just begun energetic discussion (which I suspect is less benign than I hear it), with a fellow Erithacus rubecula  in the birch trees 50 metres away. For all of these birds, this clump of trees offers different definition of ‘habitat’, and at various times, their singing, and doing stuff, if you like, counterpoints, co-exists, in a way, which I certainly hear (or mis-hear) as harmonious, or concerted, for sure. This is analogous to how Edward Cowie has encouraged me, and the Quartet, to  view, to ‘inhabit’ his quartets. This view has been, and continues to be, liberating, enlightening: this ideal of how our  ensemble might work, might live, on stage, in the ear, and in the imagination continues to inspire our work across the literature.

Peter Sheppard Skaerved 7 12 19