I wrote my first real string quartet in 2011 for the Australian String Quartet. I say real, as I did write an early quartet sometime last century – a work I ended up chopping and re-scoring for wind quartet.
The string quartet is almost the perfect ensemble to write for. It has a huge range in expression, colour and power, all within a self-contained unit of four instruments. Having said that, I am very much aware of the legacy of quartet repertoire that has been created since Haydn first thought it would be a good idea to put two violins, a viola and a cello together. It is perhaps because of this legacy that I felt I had to create some sort of subterfuge. And I did this through the use of electronic processing.
James Ledger. Photo supplied
Each instrument in my second string quartet is individually miked up and sent into a computer to have the sound manipulated in some way. The possibilities for the use of live electronic processes are limitless, but one particular process I focussed on was looping. Here, a sound can be recorded and instantly played
back in a continuous loop. The looped sound can then have further processing applied to it (pitch-shifting, echo, time-stretching, reversing and so on).
This corresponds to the visual analogy of looking into a distorting mirror – the kind that are often found at carnivals or funfairs. They are curved in a particular way in order to make the viewer appear fat, thin, tall, short, wriggly, fish-eyed, multiple-headed… you get the idea.
In String Quartet No 2, subtitled The Distortion Mirror, the original quartet sound is processed live and that sound plays back with the quartet but now in an unnatural way – as if looking into some kind of sonically distorting mirror. The real problem for me that occurred whilst writing the piece was getting the balance right between players and processing. If the string parts are too virtuosic, the electronics become completely superfluous. Conversely, if the electronics are overused the work can quickly become no more than a special effects laboratory.
It’s understandable that a lot of musicians baulk at using electronics – after all, if something goes wrong, it can be a disaster from which there is no recovery. So I was delighted when I met with the Australian String Quartet last year and told them my idea – they all immediately responded: “YES”.
The Australian String Quartet gives the world premiere performances of James Ledger’s The Distortion Mirror in Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide, from September 26 to October 9