Four and six other strings
I’ve recently been listening to a Chandos CD by the Bekova Sisters of chamber music by the C20th Czech compoer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959). It was a fortuitous discovery in a secondhand shop. I know Martinu mainly for his symphonies, of which the last – no.6 – is a firm favourite – wildly fantastical. Several movements open with what sounds like a murmuring of insects, and have passages of rising scales that remind me of gas bubbling from a molten landscape. There is also a syncopated theme that sounds as though it has escaped from some Western like The Magnificant Seven and a beautiful short chorale that closes the symphony. I don’t listen to much chamber music, but Martinu’s name tempted me, and I’m glad it did, because this CD has much to please the ear, especially with Martinu’s colourful harmony. It contains two piano trios, as well as music for cello and piano, or violin and piano.
Though I may not listen to much chamber music, I love writing it, and I found time these past six weeks to fit in some composing which produced a second string quartet of about 22 minutes and a string sextet of about 20 minutes. Writing the sextet was an insight into why this form has never been as popular with composers as the string quartet. To the quartet’s two violins, one viola and one cello you have to add two extra instruments.
A line-up of three violins, two violas and a cello runs the risk of sounding top-heavy; the combination of two violins, two violas and two cellos runs the risk of being bottom-heavy. In the former the third violin, viola and cello will each be pushed a little toward the lower parts of their ranges to anchor and spread the music out. In the latter combination you need to do the reverse and make sure the first viola doesn’t come too low. It was this 2+2+2 line-up that I chose. One immediate advantage of the string sextet is that it makes possible five or six-note chords without the players having to use double-stopping (where two notes are held down at once) – so one can work in extended harmony.
The composing reminded me of something important about creativity which relates to songwriting on the guitar. Very recently one of my guitar students complained that when he tried to put chords together it sounded like things he had already heard or wasn’t inspiring. I reassured him on the first point by saying (and this will be discussed in a future songwriting book) that there is an important sense in which you have to operate as though when you play a G chord on the guitar it is as if no-one has ever done it before. But what I have also understood is that when people writing on guitar listlessly strum round the chords they know, trying to write a song and feeling that nothing is happening, some of the reason is because until each chord has a defined voicing, duration, tempo, timbre, etc it lacks the energy that may inspire the music.
When I sat down to write the second string quartet I had no musical ideas at all. I chose a key, a time signature, a tempo, and wrote four bars of a generic introductory gesture to set up the arrival of the home key chord, E minor. I then laid out a highly rhythmic E minor chord idea. Within about six bars I had an idea with sufficient creative energy to set me off. Working with notation has the effect of forcing you to make choices about how the chords / melody is to be played that side-step the problem that arises strumming chords on guitar. For songwriting guitarists an equivalent technique would be to work with a drum machine or loop.