The Norwegian Cikada String Quartet has set itself clear repertoire priorities. As with the Cikada Ensemble (founded in Oslo in 1989), within which it forms an autonomous unit, the Cikada String Quartet concentrates on contemporary music in its more challenging manifestations “We made a conscious decision to stay away from ‘new romantic’ compositional tendencies,” says Odd Hanisdal, second violinist of the quartet. “We wanted to get to grips with the newest ideas, with demanding and technically advanced new music.” Accordingly, the quartet here presents three very distinctive, highly original compositions from the second half of the 20th century. These are all works in which extreme compositional standpoints are reflected and brought, vividly, to life. Each of the three pieces represents a breaking away from avant-garde orthodoxies, and the shaping of new and personal musical language. .
Kaija Saariaho, born in Helsinki in 1952, studied with Klaus Huber and Brian Ferneyhough in Freiburg, before going on to attend courses at IRCAM in Paris. In an interview with Anders Beyer, whose essay is printed in the CD booklet, Kaija Saariaho described the liberating effect of her contact with French ‘spectral’ composers Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail in the early 1980s. “Spectral music was fantastic compared to the post-serial aesthetics dominant everywhere, and which didn’t suit my ideas. When all my fellow students saw fantastically complicated systems on the blackboard, I didn’t see or hear anything in the music. I wanted to make music for the ears, and when I first heard Gérard’s and Tristan’s music it seemed so fresh.”
In the years leading up to the composition, in 1987, of Nymphéa for String Quartet, Saariaho had worked extensively on the spectral analysis of instrumental sounds, especially those of the cello. The impulsive brush strokes of Claude Monet’s late water-lily paintings and their intensely-daube colours provided a starting-point for a suggestive discovery of sound in Nymphéa. The concept of plant growth determines the form. The technical realisation of the changing values of dark and light, rough and smooth, hard and soft are meticulously prescribed in the score: not just the type of vibrato and the contact point of the bow between the finger-board and the bridge, but even the gauging of bow-pressure. The grating of the wood of the bow against the strings is another of Nymphéa’s defining sound characteristics.
An additional associative space is opened up by the use of words from an autumn poem by Arseny Tarkovsky, which, in English translation, are whispered into a microphone by the musicians at two points in the score. Live electronics are used only sparingly, and then mostly as an echo or resonance. In the modified version of the piece for String Orchestra, Nymphéa Reflection (2001), the composer dispenses completely with the live electronic sounds and instead simulates them instrumentally.
Saariaho has a deep mistrust towards a merely analytical approach to music, and the reduction of art to the purely rational and logical. Her poetic, subjective approach to music-making links her to John Cage, who strove to set his compositions free, not only from rules and systems, but also from the dictates of his own taste. Of his String Quartet in four Parts which he completed in 1950, the composer said: “It is music undefined by personal likes or dislikes. It is as if one is running after a rolling ball.”
Cage, then in his thirties, had turned away from dodecaphonic ideas after having studied composition with Arnold Schönberg in the late 1930’s and applied himself to composing for percussion instruments before he discovered the percussive and sound-colour potential of the prepared piano in 1940. The string quartet mirrors not just these experiences, but also his preoccupation with Far-Eastern philosophy, a fascination subsequently intensified through his contact with Japanese Zen master Daisetz T. Suzuki.
The quartet deals, Cage explained, with the Indian understanding of the seasons, with creation, preservation, destruction and peace, as well as the Indian artistic theory of the nine basic emotions, of which peace is the middle-point. Each movement represents one season: summer, autumn, winter and spring. According to the score, the whole quartet is to be played without vibrato and with a minimum of bow pressure.
For all its Buddhist non-intention, the material is organised systematically: The quartet as a whole adheres to a fixed, rhythmical scheme of proportions. In addition, each of the four instruments uses only a very limited range of notes, which are not transposed throughout all four movements. Furthermore, each of the notes used appears again and again with identical articulation and tone-colour. “The music develops by no means organically, rather more in a temporal-kaleidoscopic way”, writes Helmut Rohm in his accompanying text to the CD. “With glassy, weightless charm it holds to a constant tempo, its prism-like sound formations following the fixed course of a quasi-cosmic time-cycle.” Or, as Cage argued at the time: “The responsibility of the artist consists in perfecting his work so that it may become attractively disinteresting.”
The disruptive and yet catalytic effect of Cage’s first visit to Donaueschingen is legendary, the European avant-garde was polarised in its responses. One of the first composers to grasp the implications of Cage’s work was the Italian Bruno Maderna. He was also one of the first to attempt a musical analysis. In Maderna’s later works, indeterminacy would play an important role. However, the Quartetto per archi in due tempi from 1955 is regarded as his strictest serial work and as one of the first ever serial string quartets. As a comparison between the first and last bars of the piece immediately shows, the somewhat livelier second movement is a retrograde of the slower first movement. But a detailed analysis, such as the one carried out by the musicologist Horst Weber, reveals inconsistencies. This is quite in keeping with the aesthetics and personality of the composer, who was always cheerfully sceptical of the dogma of “pure” serialism. As an eminent expert on music from Guillaume de Machaut to Bach, moreover, he strove to find points of contact between innovation and tradition.
Maderna dedicated his quartet to his companion Luciano Berio, with whom he founded Milan’s Studio di Fonologia for electronic music in 1955, the same year that he wrote the quartet.
The Cikada Quartet, whose members have occupied leading positions in Norway’s principal orchestras, has gained a reputation far beyond the boundaries of Scandinavia as a special ensemble for New Music, as well as for projects at the nexus of composition and improvisation. Its repertoire includes works for electrically amplified string quartet, as well as works which combine acoustic string sound and live electronics. The quartet also often works in unorthodox instrumental combinations such as quintet plus accordion or a sax/strings octet in which the four string instruments are joined by four saxophones. The quartet’s core repertoire includes major works from the second half of the 20th century by composers such as Xenakis, Nono, Feldman, Reich, Crumb and Hosokawa.
The quartet’s discography includes several productions for ECM and ECM New Series. On “Birds and Bells”(ECM New Series 1665) a recording of works by the Danish composer Bent Sørensen, the quartet is represented with The Lady of Shalott. “Milvus” with works by the Swedish folk revival violinist/composer Mats Edén (ECM 1660) includes his first string quartet, in an interpretation by the Cikada String Quartet.
Cikada’s cooperation with Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen is documented on “Hyperborean” (ECM 1631) as well as on Andersen’s “rarum” compilation (rarum XVI). In 2000 ECM recorded “An Acrobat’s Heart” featuring the Cikada String Quartet together with the singer and pianist Annette Peacock (ECM 1733). The Quartet’s capacity to improvise was underlined during the period when the quartet played as an integral part of Jon Balke’s Magnetic North Orchestra. The Cikada strings have also collaborated frequently with Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim and associates, as on the album “The Source and Different Cikadas” (ECM 1764), and Cikada cellist Morten Hannisdal is a member of Seim’s large ensemble on “Different Rivers” (ECM 1744) and “Sangam” (ECM 1797).
The Cikada String Quartet performs the Saariaho, Cage and Maderna quartets at a special CD release concert at the Galerie Riis in Oslo on May 21st.
Cikada has just been nominated for the prestigious Nordic Council Music Prize 2005. Previous winners of the Nordic Award include Björk, Mari Boine, Palle Mikkelborg, Bent Sørensen – and Kaija Saariaho.
CD-package includes 24 page German-English booklet with liner notes by Anders Beyer and Helmut Rohm