30 January 2010

Quatuor Ebène Play as Though They Were a Fifth Person, or an Entire World

 Quatuor Ebène

S    ie spielen, als ob sie eine fünfte Person wurden.” [The quartet plays as though they were a fifth person.]
  —  Ensemble—Magazin für Kammermusik, JUN-2007.
O r, alternatively, when I listen to Quatuor Ebène perform Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, it makes me think that they play as though the quartet were not a human person at all but instead were Nature herself.

 Debussy, Op. 10, III, ‘Andantino’, mm. 16-19

    [50-sec clip, Quatuor Ebène, Debussy, String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, III, ‘Andantino’, mm. 16-27, 1.6MB MP3]

T he quartet’s love of jazz and affinity for an immersive aesthetic is partly what I mean. They untangle this piece and make it far more ‘declarative’ [in the sense that a software developer would use that word; ] than ‘procedural.’

 Debussy, Op. 10, III, ‘Andantino’, mm. 29-36

    [40-sec clip, Quatuor Ebène, Debussy, String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, III, ‘Andantino’, mm. 28-40, 1.1MB MP3]

T hey impart the impression that old works were somehow composed yesterday. To call it spontaneity would under-call it for what it is, or—worse—invoke again the idea of conversation, which it is not. Freshly fallen rain is more what I have in mind...

 Debussy, Op. 10, III, ‘Andantino’, mm. 49-53

    [40-sec clip, Quatuor Ebène, Debussy, String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, III, ‘Andantino’, mm. 41-54, 1.1MB MP3]

S ome years ago Naomi Cumming discussed “syntactic frames,” such as phrase endings, with regard to how they affect us listeners/performers (link below). And frames are the salient feature of the musical structure of this Op. 10—salient feature of what Debussy wrote, and of what the Ebènes play here.

T he Ebènes do not, though, ask questions [of each other, as they are performing the work] about how Op. 10’s frames are declared in the first place, nor how instantiations of frames classes make Op. 10’s musical structures function as an “app.”

 Debussy, Op. 10, III, ‘Andantino’, mm. 64-67

    [40-sec clip, Quatuor Ebène, Debussy, String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, III, ‘Andantino’, mm. 55-69, 1.1MB MP3]

F or Kant and for critics whose aesthetics and methods are descended from Kant (like Edward Cone) the “app” is the embodiment of “beautiful form.”

K ant’s view was that “beautiful form” is ideally intention-free: it shows nothing, represents nothing, it encapsulates everything; it is the “play of sensations in time,” whose internal “design [datastructure] constitute[s] the object of the judgment of taste”.

S ilence can be a musical frame, just as a datastructure in a computer’s memory that has been initialized to all zeros can be a frame. Part of what is going on in mm. 41 to 60 of the third movement of Op. 10 is the non-discursive, declarative independence of the parts, which nonetheless function as a whole. Like a flock of birds flying in formation.

T he border of the music feels “absorptive”—it captures and dispels the energy of the quartet’s preceding sounds.

F or Edward Cone, frames are the constructors/destructors of musical worlds, fictive or real ones. It is not that each world has nothing to say and nothing to see. Instead, it is simply the case that each is an environment that is intention-free, proposition-free, primeval (see Cone 1966, p. 16, link below).

E ach remains unchanged as a result of actions or events or temporal processes that transpire within it.

R esembling the way in which the programs and datastructures that comprise a computer’s operating system are primeval (links below)? Anyhow, this is what Quatuor Ebène’s account of Debussy’s Op. 10 feels like to me. Organic, primeval—‘ambient’ even—not ‘discursive’ like most string quartets are discursive. This was a new idea for me this week; maybe not new or revolutionary for you, but new at least for me.

  • Pierre Colombet, violin
  • Gabriel Le Magadure, violin
  • Mathieu Herzog, viola
  • Raphaël Merlin, cello
Q uatuor Ebène has studied extensively with the Ysäye Quartet, with Gábor Takács, and with Eberhard Feltz and György Kurtág. The Ebènes won in 2004 the ARD international competition in Munich and the Forberg-Schneider Foundation’s Belmont Prize in 2005.

T hey are performing in the U.S. and Canada during February. Somehow I must arrange to be in one of those cities on the same date as Quatuor Ebène is! Drive to experience more intention-free primeval newness...

 Quatuor Ebène

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