Commissioned by Julian Burnside QC for the NOISE
Andrew Ford: String Quartet No 4 (2012)
I can pretty much trace the moment I wanted compose music – not fiddle around at the piano, but actually make a piece – to a program on BBC Television in 1973. It was a studio-based arts show called ‘Full House’, and this particular Saturday Night Karlheinz Stockhausen was the main guest, together with the London Sinfonietta who performed his piece Ylem. This was a week before my 16th birthday.
What was so striking about Ylem, apart from the spiky sounds, was that the 19 players had no sheets of music in front of them. Indeed, for much of the time they played with their eyes shut. They were following instructions, not improvising – that much I understood – but the precise details of the music were being decided by the players spilt-seconds before we heard them, and somehow this made the performance all the more compelling, all the more communicative.
I think I started writing a piece of my own the next day, and for a couple of years all my pieces included some element of controlled improvisation or chance or indeterminacy or what Stockhausen called ‘intuitive music’. This was partly inspired by Ylem (and other early-1970s pieces that gave their players some freedom – pieces by Luciano Berio and Bernard Rands and David Bedford), but it was also partly a matter of sheer desperation. I had no technique, I couldn’t have notated complex harmonies and rhythms if I’d tried (and I did try), but with some carefully-worded instructions I was able to coax from my school mates some of the sounds I wanted to hear.
Of course I grew up. And along the way, I acquired a composer’s technique so that the musical ideas I heard could be now written down fairly precisely. But I have long wished I could find a way back to the world that so entranced that teenager. When early 2012, James Eccles of the NOISE asked me to compose a string quartet that would involve some improvisation, I jumped at the chance.
My String Quartet No 4 is still very controlled in some ways – the harmony is completely down to me – but other aspects of the piece, including, for the most part, the exact moments at which the players play their notes, are quite fluid. And the recorded voices, when they arrive, bring an extra dimension to the piece.
The piece was commissioned for the NOISE by Julian Burnside, QC.