Extreme Quartetting

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I spent Saturday afternoon and evening in Nottingham at the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ Harmony College, at which I had been invited to judge the contest that formed part of a stream called ‘Extreme Quartets’. This is a model that takes the idea of chamber music as practice gadget, and simultaneously supports and intensifies the experience.

The way it works is this. Participants learn a great pile of music in advance (in this case, six songs), and then spend the weekend receiving coaching on them, both as a chorus – re-living the original invention of the barbershop chorus as a way to deliver coaching to lots of singers simultaneously – and in a variety of quartet line-ups. The contest had a preliminary round in the afternoon, with the top two quartets and a randomly-picked third going through to the final in the Saturday evening show.

Hence, the chorus element acts the training wheels for the singers, giving the chance to rehearse the music with the support of other singers on the same part and a director out front to monitor and guide progress. At the same time, the structure puts significant demands on the singers, not just with the quantity of music they need to have on the tip of their tongues (and it should be said that the arrangements chosen were reasonably demanding pieces), but also with the flexibility needed to work with different line-ups and the pressure of both a performance deadline and public accountability added by the contest element.

The randomised elements were a notable part of this intensifying, hot-housing dimension, and these increased through the weekend. The quartet line-ups were picked at random, but they did have a couple of hours to sing together before the preliminary contest. However, they did not know until five minutes before they sang which of the arrangements they were to perform. In the final, their songs were picked as they walked on stage.

This structure minimised the opportunity for strategic learning – you couldn’t focus on just one part of the curriculum because you might be called upon to know any of it. It also maximised the adrenaline rush – hence the name ‘extreme quartetting’ one imagines – since the singers had to be right on the ball to adapt to the situation at very short notice. This combination of support structure and intensity of experience should be very good for learning, and my guess is that many of the participants went home as significantly more confident and skilled singers than they arrived.

To put all this in context, though, at the same time as I was over in Nottingham, my home town of Birmingham was seeing the final night of a far more extreme form of quartetting than the barbershop movement has yet conceived. Stockhausen’s opera Mittwoch Aus Licht last week received its world premiere in its complete form in the Birmingham Opera Company’s production as part of the London 2012 Festival.

This opera has had a certain notoriety as being generally considered unstageable. It is one of those pieces that gets cited in student essays on contemporary music as representing the excesses of modern composition in pushing boundaries by virtue of the fact that it includes a string quartet performing from four separate helicopters in flight. (This section of the opera is helpfully entitled ‘Helicopter String Quartet’.)

The players could not hear each other in real time, but all coordinated to a time-track to keep together so that the audience back in the Argyle Works could hear the polyphony. They had rehearsed together, though, and they spoke in the question-and-answer session that followed their performance of knowing when they passed themes around one to another, and imagining the music flying through the air from helicopter to helicopter.* (By the way, isn’t it a great idea to include a question-and-answer session in this kind of event? Much more useful than a pre-concert talk.)

They also talked about how the different weather conditions of each performance had affected their playing – how in the thunderstorms of Friday night they played with far more fire. Saturday night was apparently blessed with a wonderful sunset, with rays of light breaking dramatically through the clouds, and the quartet were much more aware of watching the view as they played.

Now, Stockhausen’s music can be pretty demanding on dry land, and it’s interesting to think about how adding the whole helicopter dimension intensified the experience for both quartet and audience. In some ways this might seem obvious, but adding noise and danger and huge expense does not in itself necessarily intensify an experience – it could just obscure it. (And there has been a certain amount of controversy about the production – not everyone agreed it was either artistically or economically worth the trouble.)

To start with, there is something rather compelling about helicopters. If you see one flying over you tend to stop and point and look at it. If you see four of them in convoy, it is quite an astonishing sight – as those of us who live under the flight path can testify. There is an integration of art with the life of the city going on here too – the performers and audience watching them on-screen get to see the city and its environs, while everybody out and about sees a dimension of the performance in action. There’s some interesting stuff going on there with the interpenetration of directly-witnessed versus mediated experiences too.

But the main thing is the way that everyone’s imagination has to work harder to construct the gestalt out of the parts. We forget when all four performers are there with us that the conception and perception of a single piece of music from the actions of multiple players is something that both performers and listeners to cooperate with actively. Just performing parts that go together at the same time doesn’t make an ensemble. This radical separation in action heightens the mental bonds players and listeners need to use to inhabit the same house of musical being.

And, like the extreme quartets at Harmony College, this intensification is achieved through a combination of very tight structure and deliberately aleatoric aspects. Control is tightened in some ways and relinquished in others, and the musical results are appreciated all the more because of the risks taken to make it happen. Success has a greater emotional impact when it is not guaranteed.

*The comments about the performance come from my partner Jonathan who was there, and came home completely lit up by the experience.

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