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Graham Fitkin (b1963)

Loosening & other works

Sacconi Quartet Detailed performer information
2CDs Download only Available Friday 12 July 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: July 2023
Parish Church of St Mary & St Eanswythe, Folkestone, and The Space, Sevenoaks School, United Kingdom
Produced by Matthew Bennett
Engineered by Dave Rowell
Release date: 12 July 2024
Total duration: 101 minutes 37 seconds
There are five works on this double album. Each one places the string quartet at its core. Each work however includes its own additional soloist, or in one case, two soloists.

I see and hear the string quartet as a fairly homogenous group, steeped in history and tradition, in which timbrally similar instruments create a well-honed sound through trusted communication and shared purpose.

For me as a composer, the addition of another distinct instrument, someone new, a guest, into the mix creates questions and opportunities. Now there are two protagonists—the quartet and the soloist. How does this guest interact with the established group and what is their role? How does an existing group embrace the incomer and adapt itself? These works revolve around the connections between groups and incomers, their characteristics, how they affect each other, what they gain and what they lose.

Each work has clearly defined roles for the two protagonists. Each work allows for two perspectives, two distinct approaches to the material and yet each protagonist is affected by the other. Approaches often evolve through the works, perhaps the quartet splits their honed homogeneity to focus more on individual constituents or conversely maybe they subsume the incomer into their group creating a single expanded ensemble.

In Loosening (2021) the strings are joined by the soprano saxophone of Simon Haram. Having worked with Simon for many years I know his sound and the control he can exhibit over single tones. I had this in the forefront of my mind while composing the work. I wanted the strings and saxophone to follow their own paths, periodically joining up before veering off again, aware of the other’s world but never wholeheartedly embracing it. The work focuses on sustained sounds, with omnipresent string glissandi coming in and out of focus. The solo saxophone’s gentle persistence is untroubled by this, following a path adjacent to the strings but ultimately diverging. There is smudging involved and there are moments of clarity perhaps.

In a world which I think applauds certainty and simple answers, I hope this work has a kind of frailty to it, a tendency to feel unsure, to try with trepidation whilst remembering past fallibility. Or perhaps that’s just the way I feel generally …

The incomers in Slow (1990) are two organs that work closely together. At first their role is very distinct from that of the quartet, often playing on their own, or in a very different manner to the strings. The work proceeds through the methodical juxtaposition and parallel development of three contrasting blocks of material—polyrhythmic cells, a simple descending string melody and unadorned chordal sequences on the organs. As the music progresses the organs gently assimilate and develop aspects of the string material. Firstly, there is increasing rhythmic activity when strings and organs combine. Then the ‘solo’ organ sections, which focus on similar chordal material, present themselves differently, maybe in clusters or widely spaced. Finally the sustained accompaniments (behind a simple cello melody) swell at each subsequent appearance whilst retaining their own quite static character. There are seventeen sections laid end to end with only a single collision of materials two-thirds of the way through the piece.

Distil (2014) brings in solo percussionist Joby Burgess. I have worked with Joby playing both tuned and untuned percussion in my work for many years, often in loud, fairly brisk musics. Here I wanted to eschew the short sharp side of percussion and focus instead on the wonderful sustaining envelope that some of the instruments display. String instruments of course have that glorious ability to sustain sounds but here the roles of the two protagonists are inverted. The strings play short, separated pizzicato sounds, often with the wood of the bow, whereas the percussionist uses sustaining instruments such as vibraphone, crotales, glockenspiel, allowing a natural decay of the sound. As the piece develops the protagonists begin to shift their sound worlds, almost crossing over. The strings introduce longer sustained notes while the percussionist ushers in discrete drum strikes which progressively accrue.

Mimicry is central to Touch (2005) and so is Clare Hammond at the piano. Although the piece wasn’t originally written for Clare, her control and dexterity are perfectly matched to the somewhat frenetic nature of the work. I wanted the pianist and strings to be in constant dialogue, imitating each other, questioning each other, urging each other on, endeavouring to be one whole group whilst retaining their individual constituents’ character. The soloist I feel has a more commanding presence here than in the other works, driving the piece along, adapting to the string responses in a quasi-extemporising manner.

I was aware when composing this piece that despite its general speediness I often thought of the music in slow motion. At first the central idea was of moving curves or planes coming into gentle collison, but as I developed the music it seemed that alongside this jagged switching of trajectory there were slower moments of collision resulting in unexpected exchanges of energy and direction reminiscent of an aural lava lamp. This seemed to me a somewhat useful development. And so it began to usurp the loose palindromic framework I had set the music within and started to feature more heavily in all the note-moving decisions. Whether anyone else notices this is another matter.

In Recur (2016) the strings are joined by my wonderful partner harpist Ruth Wall, who has taught me everything I know about harps. The work revolves around a small shared fragment of material. It is a simple rising minor 3rd, and is in C minor of all things. It reappears throughout the piece with varying degrees of similarity. The strings initially make use of all their plucking capabilities, undertaking percussive explorations of this fragment with sharp pizzicato and col legno, while the harp has a more mellow, multi-faceted approach to the same material. As the piece advances the two protagonists borrow methods from the other side, the harp showing a more strident face at times or at other times a generous mellifluity, while the quartet integrates unadorned sustained tones, allowing individual characters within the quartet to come through.

These are the premiere recordings of four of the five works. The other work, Slow, has been slightly modified since its inaugural recording, and this is the new version’s first rendition. I have collaborated with the Sacconis for many years now and they have been superb to work with. They have performed many works and recorded all of my string quartets to date. On this album Recur was specifically composed for Ruth and the Sacconis, while Loosening was a commission from both Simon and the Sacconis. I am indebted to all the musicians on this double album for their hard work, patience and wicked playing.

Graham Fitkin © 2024

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