One of the stories told by historians of Western music concerns the migration of standard genres to the geographical margins. It is a story especially persuasive with regard to the string quartet, which has often been viewed as the traditional genre par excellence. Of course, ‘tradition’ in this context refers to one tradition in particular, that of the Western classical music performed in European salons and concert halls from the late eighteenth century to the present day, and that is certainly not the only tradition which may come to mind when we hear music played on stringed instruments. There are also the traditions of string playing by folk musicians – the gypsy fiddlers of Central Europe, for instance – which as early as Haydn were finding their way into the string quartet.
For a composer working today, it is the example of Bartók’s quartets – messages to the Austro-German tradition from a composer deeply imbued with the spirit of folk music – that may be clearest in the background. That is not to say that there are not as many ways to write for the medium as there are ensembles performing such works. But the instrumental line-up of two violins, viola and cello retains its special associations and much of its prestige. It is a genre as well as a medium. And more than most genres, the string quartet commands seriousness. It invites major statements.
It also invites individual expression. Its challenge is an opportunity, for a composer wishing to add his or her own voice to that tradition. Composers have vouchsafed some of their most personal thoughts to this most intimate medium, and the programme of four works recorded here is both a snapshot of four ‘contemporary voices’ and an index of Western music’s capacity for renewal from within and without – a testament to the endless, and endlessly absorbing, interaction of the personal and the traditional against the background of a genre which shows no sign of exhausting itself.
© 2006 John Fallas
[from the booklet notes to The Cold Dancer: contemporary string quartets from Scotland (Delphian Records, 2006)]