With live performance in ‘hibernation’ while concert halls remain shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian String Quartet has taken the opportunity to accelerate a recording project that’s been in the works for some time. The Australian Anthology, which began in December last year with the digital release of Paul Stanhope’s Second String Quartet, was followed this April by Joe Chindamo’s Tempesta.

Australian String QuartetThe Australian String Quartet. Photo © Sam Jozeps

“We feel very, very lucky, we feel very privileged to be in an organisation that is healthy, that is nimble, and that has the ability to continue to work, albeit in different ways, throughout this period,” violinist Dale Barltrop tells Limelight.

When the lockdown began, the quartet found itself split across two states, with violinists Barltrop and Francesca Hiew in Melbourne and violist Stephen King and cellist Sharon Grigoryan in Adelaide. “Which made it very difficult for us to continue operating as a quartet for some time,” Barltrop says. “However, we’re looking to change that once the restrictions start to ease. Franny and I will both be on our way to Adelaide as soon as we can to resume rehearsing and perhaps even producing content as a quartet again, which is very exciting!”

“It’s given us an opportunity to actually take on some projects and do a lot of thinking, strategic thinking and planning, that we wouldn’t have otherwise had time to do,” Barltrop says. “So we’ve actually been holding Zoom meetings almost on a daily basis, having conversations both with our board and our management team, strategising, talking a lot about how we’re going to handle the next six to nine months, and beyond.”

The shut downs have given the ASQ an opportunity to supercharge their Australian Anthology initiative. “It was a really great opportunity for us to I guess seize the moment and start to kind of accelerate the release of these recordings that we’ve been working on,” Barltrop says.

The project will continue with the release of works by Kate Moore, William Barton, Nigel Westlake, Stephen Pigram, Anne Cawrse, Ross Edwards and James Ledger – as well as Dr Lou Bennett’s Jaara Nyilamum on May 29.

“One of the major ambitions for the ASQ is to champion Australian composers, and not just to play their music but to actually be advocates for their music, and to give Australian composers an opportunity to be recognised for the great work that they’re doing, and to essentially create a living history of Australian string quartet music,” he says. “We’ve got so many wonderful composers in this country – and when we stop and make ourselves a list of all the people that we want to commission, it’s quite overwhelming.”

“So this project, which is partly funded by the Richard Divall Australian Music Fund,” Barltrop says, “We’ve been able to undertake quite a number of recordings and release them under our own brand.”

Fortunately for the ASQ, most of the recording had already taken place before the quartet was split up by travel restrictions. “We obviously had already recorded most of these works, which was convenient – not all of them have been edited and completed as of yet – but it sort of does gives us the opportunity now to sort of roll them out in such a way that kind of keeps people interested and hopefully garners a lot of interest around the country,” Barltrop says.

While most of the works have been recorded in the studio, James Ledger’s The Distortion Mirror was recorded live. “We took a live recording of that work because it involves electronics in that piece and it requires a very experienced sound engineer – we had Adele Conlin on tour with us last year when we premiered that work, and so it became very much almost like a live installation piece as each performance was slightly different from the last.”

At this stage there are no plans for a physical release on CD, or as an album, but Barltrop is keen not to rule anything out. “We feel it’s slightly less vital that these pieces are paired or grouped together on an album, but that each piece should be celebrated in its own right,” he says.

Barltrop is particularly proud of the works that emerged from the Quartet and Country project, a collaboration between the ASQ, the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival and its then Artistic Director, composer Iain Grandage (now Artistic Director of Perth Festival) and UKARIA. Bennett, Barton and Pigram’s compositions were commissioned through the project, which sought to couple Western Art Music with the traditional Songlines of Australia through compositions for quartet and voice, and premiered at Port Fairy. “Our relationships with the artists blossomed from that, and we performed with them most recently just this past February at the Perth Festival, and so this was a wonderful opportunity to put these works down and essentially immortalise them,” Barltrop says. “All three of them are incredibly powerful, moving stories from some of our great Indigenous artists. So that I think has been a really special aspect of this whole project.”

Barltrop also flags Nigel Westlake’s Sacred Sky as another release to watch out for in the Australian Anthology. “That quartet is a beautiful testament to the memory of his sister. That was one of the highlights of last year, working on his work.”

The ASQ was due to premiere new works by Cawrse and Edwards as part of its 2020 touring season. “Both of those premieres unfortunately have been cancelled because of government restrictions, and so rather than taking them on tour, we are going to move forward and record them – and we will hopefully premiere them, whether it’s online through some kind of online event, or perhaps later in the year once audiences are able to return to the halls,”

The ASQ’s dedication to Australian music doesn’t stop with the Australian Anthology – it has also launched a fundraising initiative, ASQ Encore, to support more commissions from Australian composers, with Kate Neal and David Paterson named as the first two commissions in a new series of miniatures.

“All musicians and all artists all over the world are looking for new ways to operate at the moment,” Barltrop says. “It’s been a real challenge for everybody, but hopefully there are some wonderful things that have come out of this period, and we’d like to think that this project is one of those shining beacons. It’s a privilege to be able to continue to do what we do, which is being champions for Australian music.”

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