Any release spunky enough to embrace Ligeti’s and Finissy’s Second Quartets – not to mention Stravinsky’s Three Pieces and Lutoslawski’s historically important 1964 String Quartet – is OK with me. But ‘Quartet Choreography’ has another agenda, too. In 1942, in his Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons , Stravinsky made an extraordinarily prescient claim: ‘It is not enough to hear music., it must also be seen’, he wrote, ‘An experienced eye follows and judges … the performer’s least gesture. One might conceive the process of performance as the creation of new values … similar to those which arise in the realm of choreography.’
Anyone who’s watched Thelonious Monk’s jabbing fingers play the piano compared to, say, Alfred Brendel’s balletic, curved fingers, knows how directly Monk’s body movements change the sounds we hear. As the Kreutzer Quartets cellist Neil Heyde observes, string quartets work with a similar correlation between sound and movement. Most obviously, the contrast between the ‘slowly unfolding cloud of sound’ at the start of the Ligeti and, to produce it, the quartet’s frenetic ‘unsynchronised physical activity’ suggests there’s a side to quartet-playing that only practitioners themselves can, and do, know about.
‘Quartet Choreography’ lets Joe Public in on the act. These films are edited to mirror something of the composer’s approach to structure but, more significantly, to allow viewers to see the physical interaction between player and instrument. The Meccanismo movement of Ligeti’s piece scuppers any misconception that string players treat their instruments with kid gloves: these moves are brutal, physical, surgically precise. Intriguingly, the Finnissy and Lutoslawski quartets both began from the idea of producing a set of independent parts – Finnissy stuck with it, Lutoslawski didn’t – and now we see how the quartet shifts when a unified group chemistry is no longer the goal. Faces darken, moods change, body language becomes slightly defensive. And Stravinsky was right: we hear these moves, see the sounds differently.