To this city where genres cross the aisles religiously, the Arditti Quartet brought new music adherent to decipherable classical forms and norms. The foursome famous for rigidity and refinement brought an elegant show of quiet sonic exploration, focusing on works by women composers on Sunday afternoon at the Institute for Contemporary Art.
Liza Lim’s Hell elegantly emitted light wisps of sound painted a terrifying, picturesque scene in the already stunning ICA auditorium. Although Hell seems to be an appropriate title for a performance rife with frightening cracks, squeaks, and slides, Lim referred to the German hell, meaning light or clear. Its derivation, she explained, is from hellseher and hellhörig, clairvoyant and perceptive. This translation births a much different meaning, supported by the liberal use of harmonics and pianissimos. Contrary to the contemporary classical focus that Arditti Quartet leans towards, Hell is not without programmatic instances. A final “solution” from the traditional structure does not exist. Lim writes, “…instead one can draw an analogy with the puzzles presented by, for instance, those elaborately decorated Chinese boxes which one twists and turns in all directions without gaining entry and whose ‘solutions’ turn out to be an elusive illusion.” Lim relied on sounds of the body, particularly the contact of sounds between the fingertip and string. The hall was so silent that this quality was relatively easy to hear; between pieces, violinist Irvine Arditti murmured as he prepared his violin with metal clamps, “You can make a little noise. You’re making me nervous.” Instead, everyone remained tight-lipped and tense.
Fletch by Rebecca Saunders, another study in sound, begins with the raspy glissandos in each instrument, closely followed by a recurring, ominous trill in the cello that shook the room. Saunders described the trill as the sound that “lies hidden beneath the surface of silence,” which makes for an unsettling collection of tones. Relying solely on the weight of each sound, parts are held together with barely any motivic glue, each player finding his own fragmented path to discover Saunders’s idea of the “grit” of instruments. Although grit could be interpreted as an indomitable spirit, fitting well with the translation of Fletch (the feather placed on the arrow), the dirt and sticky remnants of mysterious substances that collect inevitably in the hard-to-reach spaces of an instrument also felt appropriate next to the scratchiness that each musician invoked. The entire experience felt as though the quartet were attempting to lift an entire mountain, silences feeling every bit as heavy and discombobulating as sounds.
dead wasps in the jam-jar (iii) inspired the most programmatic imaginations, though composer Clara Ionnata admits that she is not entirely sure of the image of the work: “Though I knew what its shadow looked like…. I pictured a kind of deep-sea environment, the lowest layer in the ocean, where constant pressure and perpetual movement seem to shape the stillness of time.” A prop-based composition, this seemed a rare pick for Arditti Quartet, who typically stays away from gimmicks and cross-genres. Nevertheless, the piece requires rubbing glass knobs against glass panes, metal clamps to muffle and distort pitch, and a mono-stringed contraption for violist Ralf Ehlers to briefly play. dead wasps followed the concert’s recurring theme of searching for depth of sound, meandering eloquently but creating a deeply uncomfortable sense of veiled truths. Consistent as always, the most baffling thing about the performance was the quartet’s sense of one another. Never once did they lose their collective sensitivity, poignancy, or intimacy.
Glued together by a seven-note cell (B-A-D-A-D-Bflat-E) that encoded composer Hilda Paredes’s and husband Irvine Arditti’s names, Bitácora capilar felt like the most intimate setting of the evening. Bitácora translates to binnacle, the container that holds a compass on a ship. Paul Griffiths describes it as a ship’s log. He writes, “Moreover, her personal relationship makes this a ‘capillary log;’ recorded in the finest threads of her bloodstream.” A collection of pulsations littered the middle section of the piece, metaphorically connecting the heavy beats of two hearts, each instrumentalist introspectively emoting each tone. Careful sensitivity among players allowed each fragment and motif to converse seamlessly.
For the first time of the afternoon, Olga Neuwirth’s In the realms of the unreal displayed brief moments of staggering tonality. Displaced by half- and quarter-tones, the melodious sounds endured theatrically because it was the only piece not entirely dominated by sonic experiment. Complete with bright contrapuntal sections and rich bass colors, its sheer volume encompassed the room astoundingly. This was not even a particularly loud composition; the rest of the program was just so intently silent that Neuwirth’s work stood out brilliantly. Based on the artwork of Henry Darger, In the realms of the unreal discovered metaphorical narrative and romantic expressions.
Subtle and sensitive as ever, Arditti Quartet’s refinement stunned, once again providing proof that classical structure devoid of any cross contamination from popular genre continues to be relevant in new music.
Rachael Fuller is an MIT administrator who has studied piano and music theory. By night, the concertgoer is also a practicing musicologist.