Madhares for string quartet (2006/07)

3rd string quartet
Work commissioned by the International Mozarteum Foundation and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra
WP: 20.01.2008, Salzburg (AT), Salzburg Mozart Week | Artemis Quartet

I Madhares (Andante)
II honey from Anopolis (Adagio – attacca;)
III sleepless 1 (attacca:)
IV sleepless 2 – Madhares (Very fast)
V a song from? (Allegretto)

Audio sample
I Madhares

II honey from Anopolis

Quatuor Diotima | CD Madhares

Programme note
Is this honey for the ears?

Prior to the composition of his third string quartet, Thomas Larcher was chiefly occupied with orchestral music scored on a larger scale: the viola concerto entitled “Still”, premiered in Linz; a commission for the Düsseldorf Symphonic Orchestra, “Heute” for soprano and orchestra; the cello concerto “Hier, heute”, given its first performance in Lucerne and the concerto for piano and chamber orchestra “Böse Zellen”, commissioned by the Ruhr Piano Festival. For the commission on the part of the International Foundation and Chamber Music Cincinnati for a string quartet, the composer found himself in the situation of having to make a transition from orchestral language back to the language of chamber music.

In his String Quartets No. 1 “Cold Farmer” (1990) and No. 2 “IXXU” (begun 1998), the part-writing of the rarely intertwining voices is oriented towards a tonally compact consolidation; Larcher frequently treats the four string voices as a single instrument which – in the words of the composer – “shoots around like a ball, bumping about everywhere”;. A round object, i.e. a coin, also plays a role in “Madhares”, here as a tangible object used to produce a special tonal quality in the first movement: a sound created by softly tapping and stroking the coin on the string of the violin. The musician generates a sort of tremolo, primarily on open strings, at different contact points which produce a variety of pitches. The resulting tonal effect shimmers and vibrates softly and delicately and is for the composer a sound akin to that of a mandolin. In Madhares, this ‘foreign’ tone slowly works its way through the music into the customary inflection of the string quartet voices – a tonally rare beautiful and atmospheric beginning to the quartet – and in the process takes on a structural function. What is stated extremely quietly at the beginning already possesses an implicit rhythmic velocity through the irregular tremolo and this subsequently takes effect during the course of the work.

Velocity is in fact a decisive factor in this string quartet and permitted Larcher to discover a method of composition with which he was previously unacquainted. Particularly in the central third and fourth movements, the instruments are no longer united in a single ball, but are autonomous individuals playing independently of one another. And, in extended passages, primarily in the third movement – which appropriately enough is entitled “sleepless”, a sheer nervous state of alertness – the composer demands from all performers that they play entirely for themselves with a borderline sense of freedom, without any consideration for the other players, finding and establishing an individual tempo of frantic velocity alongside and on top of each other. This is a free style of playing which is however not improvised, but adheres to the exactly notated parts. A note is nevertheless included in the score stating that the indicated notation containing passages of extreme difficulty and enormous technical demands does not have to be followed precisely, but should merely reproduce the image of these passages as conceived by the composer. The musicians should recreate the concept of the music following energetic study of the score and should “then overheat due to the intense velocity, propelling themselves forward madly in wild rotation” (Larcher). Through the individually discovered tempi, seemingly wholly intuitive climaxes are created. Through the ‘transcendence’ of conventional playing techniques and from the musicians’ individual extreme situations, the players gradually become reunited and glide into longer phases of a common repeated note.

The repeated oscillation between autonomy and cooperation in the third movement also produces fundamental contrasts in texture. The ‘levelling-off’ processes performed in extremely high registers and on one note respectively with the individual iridescence in each part are performed on a horizontal plane. ‘All together again’: the sudden performance instruction brings an abrupt change into the vertical plane and the four parts interlock in swift semiquaver movement and press forward with a common velocity until the final descending swoop from the highest notes in triple forte at the end of the movement. Larcher has composed a written out ritardando with progressively longer note values in the individual parts: this is a literal decomposition of the music, sinking into cello glissandi.

The sleeplessness of the third movement is followed by – more sleeplessness in the directly ensuing “sleepless 2”. Certain parts of the compositional concept which could not be accommodated in the third movement find their place here: ostinato figures out of which velocity is produced and also the pairing off of instruments. The first violin and cello join together to perform an irregular dance and the inner two voices simultaneously play a sort of chorale as cantus firmus: one the one hand, a vexing surface and on the other hand a calm melodic progression – two levels which are then reversed in the instrumentation.

The superimposition of the parts in this fourth movement produces a type of bitonality which can be found in the works of such composers as Arthur Honegger or Darius Milhaud and also in jazz harmony. In Larcher’s music, an associative searching for tonal and harmonic connections can be observed which, contrarily to the serial aspect, do not in the least appear to be exhausted. Tonal elements are merely one ray of the contemporary “atonal” spectrum, and it is functionally oriented harmony and melody which play an essential part in Larcher’s musical language, forming an element of the musical technique with which he is preoccupied and a part of the material with which he is experimenting. Along the ensuing path, he ingenuously only pursues what is connected with himself and his musical history. The concert pianist Larcher, also invariably involved in the study of Classical and Romantic piano literature, increasingly displays this impulse in his compositional work. It appears that an A minor chord can fascinate him far more than any outlandish effect from the substantial catalogue of contemporary music.

The second movement is entitled “Honey from Anopolis”. Is this honey for the ears? – the impressions of a coastal stretch on the island of Crete to where Larcher retreated for the composition of the third string quartet had an indirect effect on the creation and also certain atmospheric characteristics of the work. The composer’s imagination was stimulated by the sound of the names of villages in this mythological corner of the world. As he himself related, he wandered from Finix to Anopolis where he bought honey and explored the surrounding area. He came across the name of Madhares and yellowed photos of a settlement situated above the steep cliff-line. Madhares became for the composer the vision of a past shrouded in mystery. A melodic music in C and the longing for an idealised string sound in an unreachable Schubertian mirage are conjured up in the second movement.

The tonal path of the 3rd String Quartet crosses another path leading in the direction of atonality, abstraction and sound. Larcher is on the search for disparate elements which he amalgamates in his forms. The extreme velocity of the music in the third and fourth movements finally flows into the Urklang, the original innate sound – the tremolo produced by the coin on the strings. Within this sound, velocity and rhythmical extremes disappear, but the tension is retained in the tonal field of the fifth and final movement. The violins come to the foreground with a simple melody, a utopian folksong containing purely ‘white notes’ without accidentals: “a song from?”. The pure melody dissolves before it can provide the answer.

Rainer Lepuschitz