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Graham Fitkin's six string quartets to date range in length from barely two minutes (the appropriately titled 'Another small quartet') to the best part of half an hour—all intriguingly weave his trademark rhythmic complexity into this no longer so conventional of genres.
This disc contains all the music that Fitkin has so far composed for string quartet: six works written between 1992 and 2007. It has previously been remarked upon elsewhere that he has shown a fondness for ensembles which essentially consist of a single timbre. A great many of his early works, from the mid 1980s to the early 1990s, were written for monotimbral ensembles, including Log, Line and Loud (1989-1991), a triptych of pieces composed for the piano sextet Piano Circus, Stub (1991) for saxophone quartet, Hook (1991) for a quartet of marimbas, Fract (1989) for piano duo, Vent (1994) for four clarinets and a number of pieces for the scoring of four players at two pianos, the earliest manifestation of Fitkin’s own performing group. His use of single timbre scoring for these works allows him to focus properly and intently on structure and on matters of pitch and rhythm and to not be overly distracted by colouristic resources. To a certain extent one can relate this to the strategy of the American minimalists, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, in their early works, in which the use of groups of similar or identical instruments clearly articulates process and that this articulation of process is more important than anything else in the piece. But creative artists evolve over time and Fitkin’s later compositional explorations have invariably moved the focus away from the pure monotimbral canvases of his early music. Since the mid 1990s his large orchestral output shows him embracing all the colour an orchestra can throw at him. In a fairly recent work, Intimate curve (2015), the competing timbral resources of the orchestra are central to the architecture of the piece. A rich timbral palette of another sort is also to the fore in his two collaborative albums with Ruth Wall. Performing as Fitkin Wall, the focus of this duo is the marriage of both digital electronica and analogue synthesizers with the distinctive sound of Wall’s three harps.
But certain projects allow him to return now and again to single timbre ensembles and the string quartet is perhaps the ultimate monotimbral beast. It is given a large pitch range by the variety of the instruments involved and also great scope for colouristic inflection by the use of pizzicato, different uses of vibrato and by the various positions of the bow and finger on the strings and fingerboard. Despite all that it remains an ensemble made up of four instruments of the same type and therefore exists within a certain defined timbral bandwidth. This gives Fitkin ample opportunity to concentrate on a favourite technique: rhythmic unison. It’s something he has used throughout his output to great effect—witness the opening of the percussion quintet Partially screaming (2013) or the ensemble work Mistaken identity (2006) for one of his finest deployments of rhythmic unison—and it is central to two of the works on this disc, Servant (1992) and Pawn (2004). There’s something very compelling about a number of players fixated on the same complex rhythmic line, all endeavouring not to fall out of step with any of the others. In Servant, commissioned by the Smith Quartet and also existing in the composer’s own arrangement for string orchestra made in 1998, the string quartet presents the opening material in strict rhythmic unison as if it were one instrument. Gradually the texture opens out, the ensemble splitting into two parts, then three and so on. The piece traces an evolving polyphony and the individual sections are strongly defined by their relationship with the original unison material. At the end of this 13-minute single movement, the perspective of the single instrument makes a concluding return. In Servant Fitkin uses rhythmic unison as a jumping off point for the evolution of the piece but in Pawn, a BBC commission for the Duke Quartet at the Cheltenham Festival, he is bolder in his explorations; during its 20-minute span the quartet almost never deviates at all from a state of rhythmic unison.
Pawn and Inside (2006) are examples of a particular type of formal structure sometimes found in Graham Fitkin’s more recent work. In 1993 he provided a programme note for the premiere of his ensemble piece Ardent. Fitkin wrote the following about the changing characterisation of his music:
Much of my music starts in a certain way and doesn’t deviate from those parameters set up at the opening. For instance if the piece is loud and fast then so be it for the whole thing. Ardent was the first piece in which I decided to incorporate different parameters (maybe different emotional slants) in the same piece.
As with the gradual shift from an initial fixation on single timbre ensembles, here too Fitkin’s approach has evolved over the years. Both Pawn and Inside start softly, with music that is slow and sustained, but then the music in both quartets becomes faster, louder, very rhythmic and animated and finally returns to a version of the original slow material, in more truncated form. There’s a rough overall ABA structure to the two pieces but this is reached in different ways. The chordal sequences in Pawn break down into different types, which alternate and work in tandem with each other. The harmony and pacing of the chords is constantly evolving in small increments—there is no exact repetition of anything—lending the music an uncertain, uneasy feeling. Defined partly by register and—unusually for Fitkin—partly by the differing amounts of vibrato deployed, the slow chord sequences in the opening section occupy a time span of nearly 10 minutes before the first loud intervention. nd when this comes it really is an intervention … short, stabbing chords appearing periodically out of nowhere. The loud accented material gradually takes over—always in rhythmic unison—and evolves into something more constant, eliminating the presence of the opening material, propelled by obsessive rhythmic figures, until it is all abruptly pulled back and gives way to a reprise of the opening music. But there is no easy conclusion, this is not comforting music by any stretch of the imagination. As the composer observes in his own programme note, it is really quite bleak.
The ending of Inside (2006), which was commissioned by the Elysian Quartet, seems much more conclusive. In part this is due to the cadential nature of the main material in the slow sections: a three-note stepwise falling figure which seems always to be resolving. Compared to Pawn, the structure of Inside seems somewhat more conventional; the music starts to change character about a quarter of the way through the piece after which the composer embarks upon an extended kaleidoscopic ‘middle’ section with sharply defined blocks of rhythmic energy rotating round each other. Fitkin controls the pacing and sequence of events in a masterly way, racking up the tension to level after level as this section progresses.
Graham Fitkin’s tendency is to avoid multi-movement structures. Servant, Pawn and Inside are all examples of the most common structural type in his output, a single span of music lasting anything from seven or eight minutes to half an hour. Many of his works are composed as extended single movements like this. A small quartet (1993) and Another small quartet (1994), both written for the Smith Quartet, are examples of another structural type that he regularly employs, the standalone miniature. In the late 1980s he started to produce short pieces for piano, each a few minutes long, informed to a large extent by composers such as Satie and Skempton. Reflective in mood, pithy in utterance, they were often written for concerts of his work to provide contrasting moments to the predominantly hard driving rhythmic music that he was writing at the time. His debut CD ‘Flak’, released in the early 1990s by Factory Classical, shows this contrast very clearly; if it had been released on vinyl there would have been a clear side one / side two dichotomy, with the first ‘side’ featuring his highly rhythmic and multi-layered music for multiple pianos, contrasting on the other hand with a ‘side’ of solo piano miniatures. The two quartets on this disc are very brief indeed, just a couple of minutes each. They are built on fleeting, uncertain gestures which are put through a number of harmonic changes or alterations. The ground covered in the short two-minute span seems huge, the music managing to demonstrate a certain degree of forward momentum while remaining essentially static.
String (2007), composed for and premiered by the Sacconi Quartet at Wigmore Hall (11 March 2008), is another single span of music but in the way it behaves it is something else altogether. It avoids the composer’s usual predilection for block structures and sharply defined materials and instead concentrates on an elusive counterpoint, in which the composer loops a number of short phrases against each other. Lines and sections bleed into each other, creating a texture of blurred polyphony that is fluid and elastic. There is a quite startling change of texture around two thirds of the way through where the predominant argument is suddenly and brutally interrupted by some climactic arpeggiation; just as suddenly it returns to where it was before that happened and the texture runs its course before drifting off. There’s no evidence that Fitkin regards the Cornish landscape and culture as a tangible influence on his work. But this writer at least finds it impossible to disregard the feel of an elemental, ‘English mystic’ type of music in String and was reminded of a certain Englishness or mystic pastoralism from the mid to late 20th Century … there are moments where it’s not a million miles away from Michael Tippett. There really is nothing quite like String in Graham Fitkin’s output.
Laurence Crane © 2017
These quartets were written between 1992 and 2007 and over those fifteen years I would have expected a certain amount of change in their sound. After all, everything else changes at such a rate these days that the idea of things not changing raises the spectre of potential luddism. And that surely would never do. But on listening to them recently I thought how little had changed. Of course there are differences in harmonic language, melodic stridency, architectural handling, and the quartets focus on slightly different things but at their core I feel the same desire for control and the idea of freedom versus rigour are evident in all of them. And the uncertainty too.
I am indebted to The Sacconi Quartet for their hard work, focus and lovely playing, to Raphaël Mouterde for his patience and meticulous ears, and to Signum and Steve Long for their support in releasing this album. Thank you.
Graham Fitkin © 2017