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When a string quartet plays musical chairs

Features - Classical Music | Chamber

When a string quartet plays musical chairs

by Zoe Knighton on March 16, 2017 (March 16, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Chamber | Comment Now
The Flinders Quartet's Zoe Knighton explains what happens when you mix and match the seating arrangements.

One of our teachers, David Takeno, had this really cute old “quartet” music stand. When we played for him (at the top of an old water tower in Wimbledon) we would be seated in a true circle around this stand that had four shelves for the music attached to a central pole. It was always an amazing experience making music in that room and now I am beginning to understand one of the reasons why.

In a recent development period, we took the opportunity to consciously document our responses to the varied positions in the quartet. The position of each instrument in relation to each other obviously has a huge effect on the aural balance for the listener. What we often forget is that each musician will subtly change how they play depending on who is playing beside them. Most often, these changes are subconscious, not conscious choices.

Essentially there are three options:

1. “European”: Organising the group from highest to lowest with the cello facing the first violin

2. “American”: Placing the cello on the ‘inside’ with the viola facing the first violin

3. “Antiphonal”: Playing with the two violins facing each other, the viola next to the second violin and the cello next to the first violin

The Flinders Quartet: Helen Ireland, Shane Chen, Zoe Knighton and Nicholas Waters. Photo © Agatha Yim

We began our session in the “European” seating arrangement, which is most familiar to us. There is something very satisfying and orderly about arranging the quartet sound like a set of Russian dolls, from highest to lowest. It keeps the inside voices (second violin and viola) together and unified. It all felt normal and completely natural to us, but we wanted to try the other combinations without bias so we brought in a trusted set of ears, cellist Michael Dahlenburg, to help us make an honest assessment.

Now seated in the “American” arrangement, we recalibrated our listening, relished the new partnerships forming, and played for a period of time. Rather than discuss how it sounded, we discussed how it had felt while we played. It seemed overwhelmingly that having the bass of the sound in the inside of the quartet brought the group more homogeneously together. Because having the bass in the middle changed the way we felt, it changed the way we played. Another bonus was having the bass sound hit the listener directly rather than side on. The viola has much more volume sitting that little bit closer to the audience (most of the volume from a violin or viola comes from the back of the instrument). The two downsides of the “American” seating were a loss of connection between the second violin and viola (separated by the cello) and the loss of communication with the audience from the viola.

Then we tried the more unusual “Antiphonal” seating arrangement, with the two violins conversing opposite each other rather than beside each other. Shane and I loved pairing the highest and lowest sounds together and Nick found that being able to see Shane face on enabled him to quickly gauge how to play with him. Helen and Nick felt like they had their old inner voice team back. Had we found the answer? After a period of time, it seemed the lack of familiarity with this seating meant the aural processing for all of us (Michael included) took a little while and we wondered if it would be worth pursuing. Perhaps it will.

So … where are we now? Our motto is to embrace musical change. We are constantly searching for new ways to play a phrase and organise our sound. This means a constant questioning of everything that we do. What we did discover was that rehearsing in a circle saves a lot of time playing musical chairs and gives us the best chance hear everyone. We just need to ask David Takeno where he got that music stand!


The Flinders Quartet's Schubert in the South tours Victoria until March 26

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