The Australian String Quartet’s Close Quarters concerts have taken them to venues from a woolshed to a bikeshop. Violist Stephen King explains how these concerts are similar to the way music was presented hundreds of years ago.

Australian String Quartet, Close QuartersThe Australian String Quartet at Adelaide’s Little Black Bike. Photo © Sam Jozeps

What are the pleasures of doing these Close Quarters gigs?

We love playing our Close Quarters gigs because of the intimacy with the audience. For many of them it is their first classical concert and the one hour informal format always opens up many conversations. Our programs are never dumbed down and with the huge stylistic diversity on offer it is often the contemporary works that get the greatest response. The unusual venues chosen remind us that we are all stepping out of our normal bounds and a unique sense of occasion is created.

Why did ASQ launch these concerts?

ASQ launched this style of concert over four years ago to take music to the people, to places where they already like to go. Also to break down some of the perceived barriers in classical music and make it affordable at $25 per head. We wear casual clothes, people have a drink and find a perch anywhere they feel comfortable, we talk between each piece and there is a rapport between audience and players. It is music presented in a similar way to how it was hundreds of years ago, true chamber music, up close.

The Bromley RoomThe Australian String Quartet performs in The Bromley Room in Brisbane in July

How was performing in, say, the bike shop, Little Black Bike, different from the experience of performing in the concert hall?

We have performed in venues from a flower shop, to a gin distillery, to a Vietnamese Pho bar, a vintage clothes shop, a woolshed and a whole array of bars, galleries and museums. In the Little Black Bike we played in a half pipe, a large curved wooden ramp for bikes and boards. It was like playing on a stage that embraces you with a surprisingly warm and generous sound.

How did the audience respond to the performance?

We got a raucous and rowdy response from this audience who seemed quite happy to voice their opinions! Some of our regular supporters came but we drew a new crowd of pro skaters, bikers, winemakers, furniture makers as well as a lot of locals from the community. This is a big reason why we do these gigs, to be part of people’s everyday culture – we’re back there in a few weeks for more.

Australian String QuartetStephen King performing with the ASQ at The Junk Bar in Brisbane

What are the challenges of performing in these more unusual venues?

We’ve played off iPads for several years and this solves most of our early hurdles. We arrange a set-list that has all the variety and cohesion of a good degustation and we never need clothes pegs in the wind or lights in the dark and we often perform standing with Sharon on a riser or barstool! There might be some occasional kitchen noise or passing sirens but it never seems to detract from the close-up involvement in the music.

Do you think about programming and repertoire differently for the Close Quarters concerts?

We usually play five to eight different works or movements in a one hour Close Quarters concert. We find that the shape of the experience can be tailored to create a journey depending on the space, the vibe of the audience and the mood in the room. Pacing and balance of energetic works with slow or sad or achingly beautiful pieces, contemporary Australian works and music from different periods in history. We often feel like chefs with an endless supply of ingredients.

Are there any lessons you’ve learned in the previous concerts that you’ll bring to future Close Quarters concerts?

We like to keep it fresh and personal with each event being tailored. These concerts also help to inform our main stage performances adding new dimensions such as different lighting states for different pieces, talking from the stage and experiments and collaborations with theatre, electronics and diverse artists. We also avoid concerts in restaurants around meal times!

What have been your favourite moments so far?

Playing in the dark during earth hour in the South Australian Museum, ending up with bird droppings on me after playing Sculthorpe in a wool shed in Hay and combining food and music in our PitchFork show with Post Dining at the Adelaide Fringe Festival earlier this year.

The Australian String Quartet performs at Little Black Bike, Adelaide, on July 4; The Bromley Room, Brisbane, on July 6; The Glasshouse, Melbourne, on August 29; and The Chamber Project, Sydney, on September 5