If the continuity with Birtwistle’s writing for other instruments nonetheless remains clear [in String Quartet: The Tree of Strings], then the Nine Movements for String Quartet, in representing necessarily more contained, less discursively extended versions of many of the same techniques, perhaps thereby recall more clearly another source too – the first of Stravinsky’s 1914 Three Pieces for String Quartet, whose use of the four instruments to superimpose a number of independent, ostinato-like musical ‘objects’ is surely present in this music’s stylistic memory. Birtwistle’s equal assurance in doing ostensibly very un-quartet-like things with a string quartet was hard won, and perhaps unsurprisingly for his first forays in a strange medium, he proceeded tentatively at first. ‘Frieze 1’ (initially called simply Movement for String Quartet) was written in 1991 for the 90th birthday of Alfred Schlee, director of the Viennese publishing house Universal Edition. In 1993 Birtwistle added two more quartet pieces – Fantasias 2 and 4, as they were to become. It was only in 1995 that he decided, firstly, to extend the set to nine; and secondly, having also added six new settings of poems by Paul Celan to an earlier group of three, to offer a performance option in which the two cycles would be interleaved, songs alternating with quartet pieces under the overall title Pulse Shadows.
Hearing the quartet cycle alone, as here, might help us to listen for the distinction which Birtwistle marks between movements titled ‘fantasia’ and those titled ‘frieze’. These are not so much cycles within the cycle as two types of ‘movement’: two ways of moving through time, or, more precisely perhaps, two ways of attempting to fix music’s relationship to time passing. The fantasias are impulsive, switching rapidly between gestures and different types of material. The friezes, while often exhilaratingly fast, are more linear in their unfolding, remaining (unlike any of the fantasias) in the same tempo throughout and presenting a succession of ‘objects’, in a paradoxical combination of movement and stasis.
At the same time, since similar musical objects and gestures appear in both types of movement, we may feel that the distinction is not so absolute after all, just as – on the larger canvas of the composite vocal-instrumental sequence – the alternation of songs and quartet movements leaves an ambiguity as to which is shadowing which. The movement titles in the quartets, then, should probably be understood as suggestive rather than restrictive; and they join an overall title that suggests much indeed. ‘Pulse’ is musical rhythm, of course, but also, particularly when the repetitions are as individuated as Birtwistle makes them, it is human rhythm – heartbeat. And with a composer as mythologically minded as Birtwistle, we shouldn’t forget that ‘shadow’ is cognate with ‘shade’: the departed continuing to reside in the underworld – human form without human content, as it were. ‘Pulse shadows’, then: two words conjoined, one pointing towards life and one away from it, and an apposite title for a work haunted by the questions – of life, and of what is not life – that haunt Celan’s poetry too, and MacLean’s, and that recur in their own way as the players move out towards those empty chairs in the final minutes of The Tree of Strings.