Bloomsbury Mornings

12 Jul 2019

RPS Composer Daniel Fardon reflects on his year-long Rosie Johnson RPS/Wigmore Hall Apprenticeship, and unravels the poetic and conceptual inspirations behind his new string quartet, Six Movements.

Receiving the news last year that my Royal Philharmonic Society commission was going to be for string quartet was a felicitous moment; I had never written a substantial work for string quartet before, and here was my opportunity. The prospect of its performance being in the Wigmore Hall only augmented this moment. I have now finished writing the quartet (entitled Six Movements), and looking back over the previous months has brought many thoughts into sharp focus, particularly in relation to my compositional process.

The activity of composing is often a volatile one in my case, and begins with a long period of feeling at sea. I start and re-start, fluctuate between ideas, scrap them, regret scrapping them, and so on, and end up spending inordinate amounts of time sat at the piano trying to find a particular sonority or a set of notes that I can work with. What follows is a relentless flitting between desk, piano, and glaring out of the window – from early in the morning to late at night – navigating my way through the dense forest of potentiality and becoming engrossed in the search for my final piece. Some days the ideas surge, other days I plateau, struggling to pen a single note, and negotiating this waxing and waning becomes central to my routine. Alongside this, and a factor that is becoming increasingly significant for facilitating my writing, is the physical environment in which I am working in. It needs to be quiet, and I crave for long swathes of uninterrupted time. With the string quartet, my keyboard became furnished with cacti, candles, and peach tea (Whittard’s Covent Garden Blend). If it also happens to be raining (ideally profusely) outside, this is for some reason a real advantage.

The string quartet itself comprises six movements through which I have explored a collection of contrasting characters, moods, and expressions:

I. Prelude; flessibile

II. Bloomsbury Morning; clement & leafy

III. Interlude — duet in five; comodo, lilting

IV. Centres; silvery-simple-spirited-silvery

V. Interlude — duet in seven; comodo, lilting

VI. Strings in the earth and air (after James Joyce); slow, sonoro

These contrasts take form in a number of different ways: musical objects play with one another; tonalities diverge; structural proportions are in flux; and the rhythmic language takes on several tongues. A plural aesthetic territory hopes to create a landscape in which different styles rub shoulders – perhaps heightening one another as a result. I enjoy working with multi-movement constructions due to them allowing for both the structural independence of elements, as well as the opportunity for comparison and dialogue. In Six Movements, one of my intentions was to echo in some way the living tradition of the string quartet as a form, whilst considering the line(s) between the familiar and the strange at the same time.

The first movement (excerpt below) uses a flexible form of music notation, where the performers engage with a spatial rhythmic system as a direction for duration and phrasing. The performers enter one-by-one with vocal-like melodic shapes, moving slowly from a monophony to homophony. This movement ends by dovetailing into the second movement, with the preceding flexible spatial rhythmic scheme modulating into a much stricter state of precise metric cells and vacillating tempo shifts. If the first movement is focused on its linear melodic material, the second is concerned with vertical harmonic sonorities and the relationships between them. The title, ‘Bloomsbury Morning’ is both a nod to the quartet themselves (my piece is being performed by the Bloomsbury Quartet), and an evocation of the many mornings I have spent in and around the elegantly leafy area of Bloomsbury over the last year as part of my apprenticeship with Wigmore Hall.

Movements III. and V. (the interludes) act as palate cleansers, taking the form of two duets using different subsets of the quartet. They have some similarities, and indeed some differences; two somewhat quaint passing fancies straddling the more complex sound-world of the fourth movement. In IV., extended techniques, capricious behaviour, and the full string quartet’s range create an unstable atmosphere of ebb and flow rather distant from the interludes. The title of this movement (‘Centres’) is to do with a series of evolving tonal axes that repeatedly reposition themselves – informing the movement’s structure and trajectory.

The final movement, is a secret setting of James Joyce’s first poem from his 1907 poetry collection Chamber Music, and it is woven throughout the score in different ways. Sometimes the text is contemplated during measured silences, and at other times becomes set to melodies in the same manner as song – however in this case, not actually sung but played. The text itself is never spoken or heard out loud by the players; instead, it provides additional performative direction for the quartet to interpret. This movement does not contain a single traditional dynamic marking, but instead italicised text-based directions that respond to the poem (see below) and its expressive shape.

The inspiration behind this movement is an engagement with the redolent and heartfelt slow movements often found in the rich historical catalogue of the string quartet’s expansive repertoire, from Mozart to Shostakovich and beyond.

Strings in the earth and air
Make music sweet;
Strings by the river where
The willows meet.
There's music along the river
For Love wanders there,
Pale flowers on his mantle,
Dark leaves on his hair.
All softly playing,
With head to the music bent,
And fingers straying
Upon an instrument.

Chamber Music: I, James Joyce (1882-1941)

Daniel's commission, Six Movements will be premiered by the Bloomsbury Quartet at next Wednesday 17 July at 5.30pm at Wigmore Hall. Entry is free but tickets must be booked in advance. Click here to book.

Daniel was appointed the Rosie Johnson RPS/Wigmore Hall Apprentice Composer in Autumn 2018. The Apprenticeship was named in honour of Rosemary Johnson MBE who led the RPS for over 20 years.