It’s almost ten years since your last string quartet, what made you decide to embrace the genre again?

As is the case with being a freelance composer, it’s a matter of forward planning and timing. When there’s a brilliant group of world class musicians knocking at the door with the offer of a commission, then providing sufficient time can be allocated to the task, one must embrace the challenge.

Nigel Westlake

The quartet is a homage to your sister Kate. How have you sought to convey her spirit in the music of Sacred Sky?

Sacred Sky is a shrine in music to Kate’s memory and a contemplation on her beauty, energy, soulfulness and transcendence of spirit. Inevitably the fingerprints of grief and sadness permeate the musical narrative at times, but there is also an overarching sense of joy and optimism. I tried to write a piece that Kate would have loved to hear and I am very grateful to Dale, Sharon, Francesca and Stephen for so willingly agreeing to be a part of this journey.

What were the biggest challenges writing this quartet?

Having made a promise to Kate in her final days that I would write her this piece, I found it almost impossible to know where to start. Still in the throes of grief, none of my initial musical ideas seemed to be worthy or have any potential. However once I began to gravitate toward a form for the work and commit to ideas, it became a daily meditation, a healing way to process the grief and a catalyst for cherishing memories.

Was the final version of the quartet very different from how you initially imagined it?

The initial spark of inspiration was based on a story Kate told me about a visitation she had received from a magical blue nature spirit during her illness. This story brought her much consolation and she was delighted that I was thinking of using it as inspiration for a new piece. However as the work progressed, the narrative began to evolve into something broader and less specific, incorporating Kate’s artworks as a source of inspiration.

The titles of each movement are taken from four of Kate’s seascape paintings, a collection of visual meditations based on unnamed locations, somewhere on the eastern seaboard of Australia.

I – Sacred Sky

II – Where the Spirit Dances by the Edge of the Sea

III – The Turning Tide

IV – The Journey Begins

Even though the final version of the quartet is somewhat different to what I set out to write, I can still hear traces of the blue nature spirit.

What do you feel are the greatest strengths of the quartet as a genre?

It has been my observation that quartets spend infinitely more hours honing their craft than any other instrumental combination, such is the incredibly high standard of performance and level of audience expectation, with the result that the genre has evolved into an extremely rarefied and highly disciplined art form.

This heightened sense of artistry offers the composer the potential to explore a finely nuanced sense of intimacy, delicacy and purity, as well as intense power and visceral energy.

It’s easy to see why the genre is regarded as one of the most enduring musical art forms in Western culture and why it is the palette of choice for the noble aspirations of so many great musical minds, resulting in such a formidable, diverse and powerful canon.

Do you feel the new work is a departure from your previous quartet writing, or does it pick up threads from your other two quartets?

The three quartets are from very different stages of my life, written many years apart. For me they represent a departure and significant evolution from each other.

The quartet as a genre has a rich history – are there any composers whose quartet writing you’ve found particularly inspiring?

I find myself constantly drawn back to the Shostakovich quartets. I love their emotional rawness, rhythmic drive and melodic invention. I am also a massive fan of the string quartets of Brett Dean and Sir James Macmillan.

Like this quartet, your previous two were written for specific ensembles. How significant an influence do the musicians for whom you’re writing have on what you compose?

The players have a profound influence. When writing, I immerse myself in their sound world through recordings and performances and where possible, work with them in developing a piece that serves them well, exploits their strengths and compliments their repertoire. I’m not suggesting I have ever achieved these ideals, but I will continue to try.


Sacred Sky is part of the Australian String Quartet’s Ives Westlake Debussy program, touring nationally from September 4

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