Sunday 16 August 2009

Interview with Irvine Arditti

The Arditti Quartet will be giving two recitals at the Edinburgh Festival, both of which I shall be reviewing. I was privileged to interview Irvine Arditti, who was kind enough to take time off from his holiday in Spain, in order to discuss the programmes and the thinking behind them. The music performed will be as follows:

Beethoven - String Quartet in F minor, op. 95
Berg - String Quartet, op.3
Nigel Osborne - Tiree (world premiere, EIF commission)
Ligeti - String Quartet no.2

Beethoven - String Quartet in B-flat major, op.133, 'Grosse Fuge'
Dutilleux - String Quartet: 'Ainsi la nuit'
Webern - Six Bagatelles for string quartet, op.9
Schoenberg String Quartet no.2

MB: Thank you very much for agreeing to speak to me. I thought it would make sense first to consider the two programmes the Arditti Quartet will be performing at the Edinburgh Festival. One thing I noticed immediately was the presence of Beethoven in both. Admittedly, the works in question are late and what one might describe as ‘almost late’ Beethoven, music that often seems more shocking in its modernity than much twentieth or twenty-first repertoire. But is the presence of Beethoven in your quartet’s repertoire as unusual as it might seem?

IA: Well, I think it’s a double-edged sword really. In a way, Beethoven is there, for one reason, to make the programmes a little more attractive for the non-contemporary music aficionado: people interested in hearing string quartets but who are not exactly contemporary music specialists. This is the sort of programme we do in many places that are not venues for contemporary music festivals, and which have a chamber music series, so there is a definite desire to make the programmes attractive to people who are not going to come for the modern pieces and who will listen to them. But also late Beethoven is something that the Arditti Quartet has done – a select few pieces. It’s always been my desire to put the Grosse Fuge at the beginning of a programme and continue with contemporary music, rather as a statement to living composers, like: ‘This is what Beethoven did; now let’s see what you can do.’ This is such an extraordinary piece.

MB: Yes, I can see that makes a great deal of sense. Have you ever gone further back, say to Haydn, or even to music one might perform with a string quartet, such as Bach or Purcell? Or is Beethoven pretty much as far back as you would go?

IA: Bach’s Ricercata [from the Musical Offering] in sextet arrangement and we did a special project with members of the Alban Berg Quartet, which included Brahms sextets, but we’ve never really seriously played Classical music such as Haydn and Beethoven. We once played a Haydn quartet, but it was a very special request. But it’s not really the repertoire of the Arditti Quartet and it’s not really necessary for us to play Classical music, because we’re so busy doing other things.

MB: No, I can understand that; it’s not as if there is a shortage of other things for you to play.

IA: You wouldn’t expect a quartet like the Mosaïques to play Zemlinsky, or Schoenberg, or even more contemporary pieces, so why should we be playing Classical music when we have a wealth of repertoire from the beginning of the twentieth century until today?

MB: Yes, absolutely, so would you tend broadly to see the quartet’s repertoire as starting with Schoenberg, perhaps going a little further back, and that being the starting-point for a century or more’s further music?

IA: Yes, starting with the Second Viennese School. Our classics were the Second Viennese School and Bartók and going back to Beethoven came later, but it’s very important for us to add more classical quartets to our repertoire. We have played Ravel and Janáček quartets and I think it’s very important to communicate to audiences with these pieces. And, as I said two minutes ago, we need to communicate to audiences who don’t know so much about contemporary music, but enjoy coming to listen to the string quartet, and we try not to frighten them away, but attract them.

MB: The matter of audiences puts me in mind of something else. On the one hand, as you say, there will be audiences very interested in quartet, and perhaps more broadly chamber, music, who might be enticed to come along to hear more contemporary music. Do you find, though, that perhaps the audiences more interested in contemporary music are sometimes less interested in chamber, and indeed more specifically quartet, music? Or is that not really an issue?

IA: I think there are different sorts of audiences. A lot of the people that like contemporary music do not come from the classical music repertoire. There are a lot of people that enjoy listening to Ligeti and Xenakis, or whatever, who come from another listening point of view. Some of them come from classical music, sure, but some of them come from jazz and other alternative music. But it’s nice to appeal to lots of different sorts of people and each country, each town, has its own story. That to me is a very interesting point, having travelled now so extensively. Who is educating their audience in each venue is extremely important too, for what kind of audience will come and be prepared to listen. I’m not saying that one country is necessarily different from another but the towns could be different. One could do an interesting survey on this: who comes to listen to what? But that’s going off our point, I think.

MB: It’s an additional, very interesting point nevertheless. Going back to the programmes you are presenting, each member of the Second Viennese School is featured: Berg in the first programme, Webern and Schoenberg in the second. We have become accustomed, in reading and speaking about them, to certain broad generalisations concerning these composers and their modes of expression: Berg is portrayed as the most nostalgic, Webern the most fearsomely radical, and Schoenberg the great revolutionary traditionalist, or even traditionalist revolutionary. (Much depends on how one regards the influence of Brahms.) What I wanted to ask, however, is what similarities and differences you as string players notice between these composers, and how one might relate their quartet writing to broader conceptions of their style.

IA: That’s a very good question: it’s still very challenging. I’d say that Berg and Schoenberg were more classically friendly to traditional string techniques. The parts are written very coherently and sometimes virtuosically but always within the framework of what is possible. Webern is somehow a little more aloof. It’s difficult to know how to deal with the lines; it’s difficult to know how expressively to play Webern. We come backwards to Webern, people have always said that, whereas most people go from Classical music and late-Romantic music to the Second Viennese School. So perhaps our interpretations are affected by knowing Boulez and Ferneyhough. We certainly knew them quite well when we were learning the pieces by Webern. But I think it’s a difficult question to answer, because we would approach those composers in a very classically-oriented way, from the concept of sound and everything. Berg is very challenging, because almost everything is written down...

MB: Like Mahler and Strauss...

IA: In a sense over-marked, so you have to deal with the concept that perhaps Berg was very frustrated with the performers of the day and felt he had to over-notate everything, so perhaps there is some degree of over-notation in the phrasing, but one follows and understands what the composer wants, I think. But this is still very challenging music for us to play and never boring. This is repertoire that is constantly challenging: the two quartets of Berg, the four of Schoenberg, and the Webern pieces. I think as a core basis for our repertoire, it’s very stimulating to have that and, as in these Edinburgh programmes, to kind of bounce off that with some contemporary pieces. The idea was to have some pieces from the twentieth century, plus the Beethoven, which would be a kind of overview of the Arditti’s repertoire. In fact, the director at Edinburgh, Jonathan Mills, engaged us before at both Brisbane and Melbourne festivals in Australia. At Melbourne, we did something even more adventurous; we did six concerts. We had music from the Second Viennese School, from Bartók, from Janáček, and quite a lot of new music, plus a new commission in each concert, so we have a snippet from that in the two concerts we’re doing this year at Edinburgh
MB: I was thinking about Schoenberg’s preface to Webern’s Bagatelles, which has now become almost as celebrated a text as the work itself. For the benefit of our readers I shall quote it:

Consider what moderation is required to express oneself so briefly. Each glance can be extended into a poem, each sigh into a novel. But to express a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a single indrawn breath, such concentration is only found where self-pity is absent. These pieces, as, indeed, Webern’s music in general, will only be understood by those who believe that through sound something that can only be expressed in sound can be said.

Schoenberg there seems to be saying, amongst other things, that this is absolute music, in a Romantic sense as would have been understood by, say, Wagner or even Mendelssohn. Is that how you understand Webern?

IA: Well, I think there is that clarity in Webern; he says it all with one single stroke. I’m not sure what you were meaning about the Romantic element.

MB: Insofar as Schoenberg is saying that this is absolute music, which needs no reference to anything else, only what can be expressed in sound can be expressed here, this seems quite a Romantic view of music as an art in itself.

IA: I think Webern was able to do something quite different to Schoenberg, to reduce things to that level and to express things in that, not simple but transparent way. I think it’s not a Romantic gesture but it’s real admiration from Schoenberg and, when performing their music, you can sometimes see that Schoenberg takes a very much longer way round to get to things. He’s a different sort of composer. But it’s amazing that Berg and Webern were from this school and attached to Schoenberg. Yes, for me, Webern is the most interesting of the three composers in many respects. Of course, Webern was responsible for influencing a lot of the music that came after: the vast core repertoire from, let’s say, the ’50s onwards: the core Arditti repertoire. There is this attachment to simplicity.

MB: It’s interesting in a way that from such simplicity, for so many of the composers Webern has influenced, leads to a path of great complexity.

IA: They all do that, yes. Webern started them off and is the purest example of all. One can look back now and, historically, people like Boulez, Nono, Stockhausen: they all went in their different directions but all were very much looking back to Webern from their early pieces.

MB: Are there any potential dangers in viewing Webern in this ‘pure’ way? Pure seems to be an obvious word to describe it. Might one lose anything in doing so? Are there other ways in which one might consider this music?

IA: I think pure only in comparison to his two Viennese colleagues. I was mentioning that just a little earlier, in that other, more classical string quartets, or those who tend to play mostly classical music, would approach Webern with a little more Romanticism, a little more vibrato, shall we say, in the sound, and perhaps we come back[wards]. I remember rehearsing Boulez’s Livre and discussing the type of sound Boulez wanted for this piece and thinking that, yes, this type of sound, a very precise and not-too-involved sound, with regard to the left hand on the instruments, would be perfect for interpreting Webern. And I tend not to like a more indulgent interpretation, but that’s just the way I think. I don’t impose. In the quartet, we are a mixture of four individuals, and there is a mean, which will be the end result of any quartet sound, but of course, I influence it from my experiences.

MB: Of course. Moving to Schoenberg, in Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, we hear a progression from tonality to atonality, detest the term though Schoenberg did. Is that a particular challenge to performance? How much should we hear, or rather have in mind, the ‘air of another planet’ at the opening? Or should one milk the late, even over-ripe Romanticism for all it is worth and then find a sea-change as the work goes on?

IA: I think, with this piece, one doesn’t ever think in a non-Romantic way. Of course, the first two movements are very Classical in concept, but also, I think that, by the nature of the poem and the nature of the writing in the third and fourth movements, one would play it in the same way. You wouldn’t suddenly change your style in the middle of a piece. Of course, the quartet has to be more controlled when the singer is involved, in the latter two movements. And I think it’s a very Romantic piece: we see it as such. It’s a very Classical piece for us.

MB: With Ligeti, we find ourselves in another world again. How would you characterise Ligeti’s quartet writing? And how does it stand in relation to any of the other figures we have mentioned?

IA: Well, I think it stands out as something quite different. Ligeti is part of the avant-garde of the ’60s and ’70s. I think one has to think in a completely different way when performing this music, almost to obliterate or forget classical ways of playing. This is what he wanted.

MB: Shades of Boulez’s necessary amnesia?

IA: Yes. This is absolutely the impression I had when we played this piece early on in the Arditti Quartet and when working with the composer on numerous occasions: understanding what he wanted and the concept of sound, knowing his other music, knowing pieces like the Poem for 100 Metronomes, knowing orchestral pieces where clusters of sound were really important. And the second quartet is an extremely gestural work also, And the second quartet is an extremely gestural work also. Knowing Ligeti’s other music and other composers' music for that period helps one understand a little bit more about how to play this second quartet.

MB: Henri Dutilleux is a lone Frenchman in these programmes. How would you place him with respect to the other composers?

IA: I don’t tend to think of nationalities, more internationalities. In the quartet, we have four members who are all of different nationalities, and so on. We are an international group and Dutilleux is French, very much so. Ainsi la nuit is a very important piece, which follows a more classical tradition and represents French style in the later part of the twentieth century. It’s one of the pieces that we have played a lot and I think it fits very well into more classical programmes. How old is the piece now? It’s from the late ’70s, I think.

MB: Yes, 1976.

IA: So it’s thirty years old, but I think it’s basically a classical language we’re still playing in. It’s not at all like Ligeti, though I think it sits very well in his presence. One perhaps thinks of Ravel and Debussy when deciding how one is going to interpret the piece. There’s quite an amount of velocity and direction in the piece; it’s just a very good piece. It works in a classical way, the way the movements unfold. There’s a certain amount of energy sounded towards almost the end of the piece and then you have a return to the first movement, the slow part of the music. It’s a very well-written piece for strings; everything lies very well in the hands.

MB: I suppose we should certainly mention the new work you will be performing, by Nigel Osborne. Could you say something about what the audience should expect?

IA: They can expect a music that is very approachable, a music that is not going to frighten anybody. It’s based on some folk songs and it seems to have an obsession with the sound of a stone, which is actually projected towards the end of the piece. But the harmony and the music in the piece begins with a Gaelic folk song and Osborne introduces this pitch of the stone during the piece and I hope that, at Edinburgh, we’re actually going to have the sound of the stone projected live at the very end of the piece. It’s like a loop: I suppose we give way to the stone sound at the end of the piece. I hope I’ve been coherent: it’s a little difficult to describe.

MB: Of course.

IA: Well, it’s some sort of introduction anyway.

MB: Do you think a way into the work might be to consider it as some sort of programme music?

IA: Well, programme music in the sense that it’s using folk songs and they are literally played; there is not much transformation in them. It’s difficult. I think describing music, particularly before it’s been performed – we’ve certainly rehearsed it thoroughly – it’s difficult to say what sort of piece it is. It’s certainly a very beautiful piece and Nigel has an excellent voice. In music today, he doesn’t form part of any category of whatever; he has his own individual style. And it’s quite refreshing to work with him, and come across his music. We played a short piece of his twenty years ago but didn’t really get to know him, a very short piece in 1990, so this is the first major piece he’s written for the Arditti Quartet and it’s very nice to be in his world. We try to get into each composer’s world, and his is quite original.

MB: I came across a quotation from him, saying that music making should be ‘physically and mentally liberating ... optimistic in spirit and even capable ... of giving its strength to a weakened society.’ Do you see this conception expressed in the work that you are playing?

IA: Well, I think I do, but I also think these comments are coming as much from the man as the composer. We rehearsed with him and he’s that sort of person; he’s a giving person and it’s all part of his other activities, [such as] looking after people in less-developed countries. And he’s always going and helping in places such as Bosnia, and other places, and the whole spirit of the man: you can’t play a person’s music without being involved with the person. I think that’s a really important thing. That’s something we’ve done, tried to do, throughout the Arditti Quartet’s existence: to know the composers, to know how they want their music played. And I think that’s very relevant to Nigel Osborne, because he’s a very special character. He tries to help people; he’s a giver in the world, shall we say, he’s giving, and I think you can hear that in a way in the simplicity and coherence of his music. I think you, or we, feel that knowing him, and I hope we can convey that across to the audience. That’s our responsibility.

MB: It sounds very interesting. Going back to the broader conception of the programming, I remember hearing Pierre Boulez, quite rightly in my view, disparage programmes that appeared simply to be thrown together. ‘Like a shopping list’ was, I think, his description. How do you actually go about constructing programmes, getting the ideas and the logic behind them to come together?

IA: I think we see what pieces fit well with other pieces, over the years, when you’re programming things – and which don’t. You can be making a programme of music that is very contrasted; you can have something making a theme and perhaps that is not so well-contrasted, but complementary; textural music; you can think about relationships, how a piece works in one respect. You could say that in some ways Ligeti’s second quartet was textural and might sit very well with the Ravel quartet or you could make a stark contrast with Beethoven. There are numerous ways of doing it and I very much respect Mr Boulez’s comments, but I think sometimes it’s interesting to have very stark contrasts for the audience and not have a coherency in the way that he often makes programmes.

MB: Yes, one could often say that contrasts, almost despite themselves, lend their own coherence. You might not need a single idea; works can often react off and against each other, I’d have thought.

IA: Yes, Boulez is making programmes with Ravel, Debussy, the Second Viennese School, and his music, but I used to love bringing people like Carter and Cage together: very stark contrasts, people who didn’t see eye to eye musically. Stylistically very different, but sitting together very well by virtue of the contrast, and I think one can make programmes like that also. I don’t think there any stark problems with our Edinburgh programmes.

MB: No, far from it.

IA: What follows the Grosse Fuge? You’ll have to tell me, if you have the programme there.

MB: The Dutilleux.

IA: Well, yes, it’s always a difficult decision to follow the Grosse Fuge. Conlon Nancarrow, a composer who’s no longer with us, was very obsessed with our performance of this piece and, when we heard that we were recording the Grosse Fuge and his third string quartet, he was very happy and insisted that his piece carried on immediately after the Beethoven. The rhythmic complexities of the Beethoven really set up the rhythms in his piece and it was absolutely perfect. Of course, we choose something else, something completely different from the Beethoven, something much less rhythmically insistent and a different sort of music.

MB: Yes, quite. Having mentioned Boulez, I was wondering whether there was any chance of you being tempted to tempt him to write anything more for the string quartet. Or is that the end of a line?

IA (laughs): It’s funny you should say that, because I’ve spent about twenty or twenty-five years trying to persuade him to complete the work, Livre, which he wrote, I think, in 1948 or 1949. Livre now exists without its fourth movement, published by Heugel. The fourth movement is unfinished, it exists without marks of expression. You can see it in the Sacher Stiftung. We played for the first time the movements, of course excluding number four, and we rehearsed with him many years ago in London at my house, and at that point started to try to persuade him to complete the movement, but he felt very remote from the piece at the time. But we’ve been having discussions recently, actually in the last month. I saw him several times at concerts, and we’ve been speaking about the reality of him doing that, because I believe, next year or 2011, he’s going to have a sabbatical, so he may be able to complete that work. Of course, whether he would ever think about writing a new work for string quartet, I doubt at this stage.* I hope he will actually complete Livre.

MB: That would be enough for many of us. Are there any particular contemporary composers with whom you have never worked, whether as a quartet player or as a soloist, but with whom you would be very keen to do so?

IA: Well, that’s a very difficult question, because we’ve worked with so many. I think not. I don’t want to be rude to anyone who hasn’t worked with us. Maybe we’ve left out a few people; I can’t think. We rather hoped some years ago that Hans Werner Henze might perhaps write us a quartet. We played his five quartets many years ago, but they were not written for the Arditti Quartet. He hasn’t felt the desire to write a string quartet for many years and probably it’s too late now. There are composers who promised us pieces that never happened, but they’re people that we have close relationships with. We were discussing for many years a third quartet with Ligeti, a second quartet with Nono, and another quartet with Stockhausen, but, of course, none of those things came to fruition. And I think other composers – you never know what composers are going to do, and people that I don’t know so well might suddenly write a string quartet that’s marvellous. And I would then say, ‘Why didn’t I say to you on this Sunday morning, why didn’t I mention their name?’ Off the top of my head, there’s not really anybody that I can think of, that is not actively involved in writing us pieces or has written pieces.

MB: Thank you very much. It’s really been a pleasure to speak to you, most enlightening. I’m certainly very much looking forward to hearing the concerts when I go up to Edinburgh. I suppose that’s the most important thing.

IA: Yes, the music rather than talking about it, absolutely. Do come and say hello.

MB: Thank you. I certainly will.

* The Arditti Quartet met with Pierre Boulez in Lucerne a few days before their appearance in Edinburgh and he confirmed that he had no plans to write a new string quartet.