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Pascal DUSAPIN (b.1955)
String Quartet No.6 “Hinterland” (Hapax for String Quartet and Orchestra) (2009) [20:37]
String Quartet No.7 “OpenTime” (21 Variations for String Quartet) (2009) [36:16]
Arditti Quartet (Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissjan, violins; Ralf Ehlers, viola; Lucas Fels, cello)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Pascal Rophé
rec. 2014, Cité de la Musique, Paris (6); 2016, Ensemble Haus, Freiburg (7) AEON AECD1753 [56:53]
About thirty years ago, I was friendly with a Philosophy undergraduate while studying at Leeds University. He told me that the first formal exam question he had ever had to tackle as part of his course was something along these lines: “How would one convey to a Martian, newly-arrived on Earth, what a cup of coffee tastes like?”
The kinds of issues raised in such a question seem very pertinent when compiling a classical CD review, especially so when discussing certain contemporary works. The old exam question re-occurred to me while reading the notes included with the present issue (written by Maxime McKinley, translated from the French by John Tyler Tuttle), a heroically performed and beautifully presented disc of two string quartets from 2009 by Pascal Dusapin.
I first encountered his music at the 1997 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and have fond memories of a thrilling, semi-staged performance of his ‘opera-oratorio’ Romeo et Juliette in the Town Hall, which at the time seemed to me to be a kind of ‘missing link’ between Honegger and Xenakis. I didn’t really have much understanding of what the music was about (this work is very far from a narrative retelling of Shakespeare’s play) but I found it exciting and moving, and the performance colourful and involving. I later obtained a recording (on the French label Accord) which described the ‘plot’ and the ‘libretto’ (by regular Dusapin collaborator Olivier Cadiot) in terms which were utterly impenetrable to me.
I have since become a big Dusapin ‘fan’ regardless of this – recordings of his other works regularly feature intellectually ‘challenging’, shall we say, analyses. The fact is I genuinely like the way his music sounds, I feel he has a unique ‘fingerprint’ and that he is certainly one of the most important composers of our time.
So reading the notes of this new issue really disturbs me. To cut to the chase, I absolutely loved the Sixth Quartet (it SOUNDS to me like one of his most tautly constructed and fascinating works) but found the Seventh a much tougher nut to crack, on the face of it a collection of deliberately harsh, microtonal motifs, gestures and textures in a seemingly random sequence. What am I missing? Well, I’m clearly missing EVERYTHING, if such notes truly matter. If the only way of grasping this music is by possessing a deep understanding of the work of Samuel Beckett and the French poet Frédéric Forte, and a thorough appreciation of the philosophers Deleuze, Agamben, and others, I am utterly scuppered, alas.
The Quartet No. 7 has the subtitle ‘OpenTime’ – the note explains what this refers to as follows: “Here, it is, perhaps among other things, the unquantified temporality of the anacrusis; the ‘little note’, this nomadic distribution that, even though noted, eludes the square of the metre”. Well that clears that up. Is the purpose of this kind of ‘guidance’ to encourage a wider audience for the composer? Or is it in fact the opposite, designed to exclude intellectual ‘lightweights’ who lack the necessary grounding in French philosophy, a complete knowledge of the Beckettian aesthetic, and the vocabulary that encompasses words like aporia and Wirkungsgeschichte and phrases that trip off the tongue like “rhizomatic interconnections” and “perpetual de- and re-territorialisations”.
What is the point of a record review? Presumably it’s to give an idea of what the music sounds like and to remark on performing and recording standards. This is my mission then, hopefully along the way persuading some readers who (like me) can’t make sense of the accompanying notes that some of this music at least is definitely worth hearing.
It seems that the connecting thread between these two quartets is the idea of ‘exhaustion’ –not in the sense of ‘fatigue’ but rather in terms of using up every option within a finite set of compositional parameters (assuming I have unravelled some of the accompanying essay accurately!). I think I ‘get’ that in the Quartet No 6. Fascinatingly, (possibly uniquely) this is scored for string quartet with orchestra (albeit one lacking brass and percussion). The subtitle ‘Hinterland’ seems to refer to the material that each entity contributes – in the sense that there are overlaps in texture, melody, rhythm which can link quartet and orchestra or indeed differentiate them (when one or other proceed alone). The orchestra seems sporadically to make the music ‘three dimensional’ - sometimes echoing the melodies, shapes and rhythms of the quartet, sometimes expanding them. I think it fulfils the function of adding an aural ‘halo’ to the quartet. The music is often urgent, perhaps nervous or agitated but always (to my ears at least) extremely interesting, attractive and really well laid-out for the two ensembles. It certainly helps that the particular forces involved here are the extraordinary Arditti Quartet (whose contribution to the development of the genre in the last four decades is unparalleled) and regular ‘Dusapiniers’ - L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Pascal Rophé. They are recorded in a sympathetic acoustic which lends itself superbly to the differentiation of the two unequal instrumental groups. It must have been a difficult work for the engineers to balance but I think they have done a brilliant job. The five ‘movements’ (or “attempts at exhaustion”) are played without a break but each possesses a distinctive sound-world. The twenty minutes fly by and the whole is a model of concision and coherence. The work ends with an exhausted ‘sigh’ from the quartet - literally a last gasp.
The Quartet No 7 restores the traditional solo quartet and lasts twice as long as its predecessor. The ‘OpenTime’ subtitle is completed by the further descriptor ‘21 Variations for String Quartet’ – each individually tracked. This helps, I think. The initial microtonal phrase is sort of ‘spat out’ by violist Ralf Ehlers with cellist Lucas Fels combining to provide extended pedal ‘drone’ notes as accompaniment. It seems that all of the material in this work is generated from these initial gestures, accurately (and comprehensibly) described in the note as ‘hoarse and fierce’. These adjectives could be used pertinently at regular points of the work. While stylistically it could be by no-one other than Dusapin, there is an ugliness, a starkness to this music. Variations at once collide, contrast and overlap but the formal logic of this work has thus far eluded me. It has parallels in Dusapin’s Quartet No 2 ‘Time Zones’ (previously recorded by these performers) but I found that piece ultimately more coherent and satisfying. And despite the separation of the newer work’s long span into twenty-one short sections, I still found it long-winded, and rather hard-going, if truth be told.
Other critics have been more generous about this piece than I but knowing my history with other works by Dusapin I suspect perseverance will ultimately reap some sort of reward. One can certainly only wonder at the commitment of the Ardittis to this tough music. It requires performers of their experience and enthusiasm to navigate it truthfully. I found the recording rather ‘dry’ in this work, but this may be a deliberate ploy to amplify the harshness of the sounds.
To summarise, don’t let the blurb put you off trying this, or for that matter any other Dusapin. The 6th Quartet at least is intriguing and accessible to all. As for me, I’m off for a coffee. Hot. Strong. Black. Wet. Apologies to any Martians who may ‘read’ this.