On September 11th the Miso Records released a new CD dedicated exclusively to Portuguese contemporary string quartet, with works by Pedro Rebelo, Miguel Azguime, Carlos Caires and Pedro Amaral performed by the British group, the Smith Quartet. This edition was released within the "Circuits" project developed by the Miso Music Portugal with the support of the British Council and the Camões Institute. As part of the project, the Smith Quartet, during several years, gave a series of European concerts in order to present the work of various Portuguese composers.

The Smith Quartet has created a repertoire, in which one can encounter not only "classical" 20th century works, but also over 100 pieces commissioned to composers from around the globe. Frequently the music performed by the quartet includes electroacoustic means and the composers’ list of their repertoire includes: John Adams, Django Bates, Joe Cutler, Morton Feldman, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, Emmanuel Nunes, Steve Reich, Alfred Schnittke e Paweł Szymański, among many others. Together with such Quartets as the Kronos and the Arditti, the Smith Quartet makes a continuous effort to give a new approach to the genre, to develop it and to go beyond its traditional role, by joining cross-genre and multimedia projects.

String quartet, by some considered as the pinnacle of western music, is a form, for which composers from Joseph Haydn to Helmut Lachennman reserved some of their most exceptional musical ideas. In its beginnings the quartet was a mean of expression reserved to more intimate environments, to domestic execution, due to its features of acoustic nature. Nevertheless in the 19th, and then, in the 20th century composers discovered its expressive potential and the string quartet entered into the concert halls. On the one hand the genre can be characterized by adaptability, homogeneity and condensation, since all the instruments have a similar sound root, but on the other, it is a particularly rich sound source with a great tonal variety. Since the second half of the 20th century, with the appearance of the postmodern tendencies in the 60s and 70s, a new wave of string quartet creation has emerged. The genre incorporated, with a lot of ease, the new manners of instruments' treatment and new methods of sound transformation related to the rapid development of new technologies. Apart from that, with the postmodern opening towards the past, composers encountered in this mean an excellent source of inspiration and expressivity. Nowadays it is possible to distinguish three dominant tendencies in the string quartet creation: 1) the above-mentioned postmodernism, with its allusions towards musical past and irony, which leads to deconstructing past forms; 2) cross-genre tendency, in a way linked to the first one, in which "art music" is mixed with popular, traditional and world music; 3) experimental tendency, which can be characterized by discovering of new sound and space potentials, existing in the conjunction of two violins, viola and vela (plus electronics).

The new CD released by Miso Records contains works (string quartets with electronics, some of them dedicated especially to the Smith Quartet), which can be distinguished with the experimental component. In the booklet the composers give some indications, only technical or sometimes more poetical, regarding their works. All pieces here included are dialogues not only within the instruments, but also between the acoustic and the electronic. Therefore, the musical structures are reinforced and expanded through the presence of the electroacoustic mean, which opens various possibilities for their new elaboration. The quartets recorded on this CD create a game between the acoustic and the electronic in search for a boarder, on the one hand, but on the other for a link between these two worlds.

The CD's first piece, "Shadow Quartet" (2007) by Pedro Rebelo for string quartet and four prosthetic violins, was commissioned by the Miso Music Portugal. According to the composer: "This work is part of a series of pieces that explore the notion of prothesis in relation to the interface between acoustic instruments and electronic sounds. The quartet’s resonant materials are derived from four old violins. (…) The four suspended violins act as loudspeakers for the sounding of the work’s electronic part." "Shadow Quartet" (2007) is a piece, which brings various interpretative associations, nonetheless, it is better to listen to it in concert, with the four old violin hanging above the stage, as it is then possible to really feel the dialogue between the acoustic (the quartet) and the electronic (the prosthetic violin). The electroacoustic sounds transmitted by the prosthetic violins not only extend the musical material presented by the quartet, but also react against it, making that the relation between these means varies from ambiguity to contradiction. The "Shadow Quartet" has an almost theatrical dimension; it resembles a fight between the past and the present, in which the roles are always confused, since it is not obvious which part – acoustic or electronic, quartet’s or old violins’ – belongs to which temporal space.

Miguel Azguime composed "Paraître Parmi" for amplified string quartet and electronics between February and August 2006 in Berlin. "The piece [second on the CD and dedicated to the Smith Quartet] develops as a series of compositional processes applied to this same harmonic material from which timbrical, rhythmic and tempo consequences are derived", the composer reveals in the booklet. It seems that "Paraître Parmi" – the title meaning something like "appearance among" – develops from the material exposed right in the beginning, creating a kind of electroacoustic variations. Comparing with the "Shadow Quartet", here the dialogue between the acoustic and the electronic reflects itself in a different way. Miguel Azguime applied the same theoretical model to elaborate both, the electronic and the acoustic parts, giving them a relation of symbiotic proximity. "Paraître Parmi" has a strong, almost "rock" sonority, being simultaneously a contemplation on sound, its transformations and spectrums.

"Horizon" by Carlos Caires, string quartet written in 2008 and commissioned by the Miso Music Portugal, is the CD's third piece. "At many locations, the true horizon is obscured by nearby trees, buildings, mountains and so forth. The resulting intersection of earth and sky is instead described as the visible horizon." Only through the vague description given by the composer, one realizes that it is a more dream-like piece, with poetical and almost nostalgic ambience. And so it is. "Horizon's" compositional body belongs to the acoustic quartet part, full of dialogues, polyphonic structures and imitations between instruments. At the same time the electronic part remains in the background appearing only from time to time, reinforcing the material presented by the instruments, imitating it, emphasizing the dream-like environment or creating a mist, in which the acoustic sounds disappear.

The CD closes with a work by Pedro Amaral, "Pagina Postica" written in 2008 in order to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the eruption of the Capelinhos Volcano on the Faial Island. "Pagina Postica", meaning "the next page", is the composer's dialogue with his own work. The music is based on his first string quartet, although "the material of the initial work is now read from the end until the beginning. Thus, the first measures of Pagina Postica are, as a matter of fact, the ending ones in the original string quartet", emphasizes Pedro Amaral. In this work the composer explores and transforms the traditional sonority of string quartet through the electronic component, what in its essence changes and "deconstructs the historical perception of this kind of formation." Within the acoustic body the electronics extends the limits of sound with micro "cataclysms" and "volcanic explosions".

The pieces on the CD, "Music for String Quartet & Electronics", represent different possibilities of joining string quartet with electronics, which can be a polyphonic mean (an additional voice) or a way of "playing" with the sound, a companion or a deconstructive force. Even though the performance was carried out by such a renowned ensemble as the Smith Quartet, it is not easy to evaluate it, since there are not many points of comparison. However, without any doubt it constitutes one more step in the internationalization of contemporary music creation from Portugal, a small country at the end (or the beginning) of Europe.

Undoubtedly the CD by Miso Records, "Music for String Quartet & Electronics", is a singular case on the Portuguese phonographic market as it presents, in a condensed way, like in a lab, the most up-to-date circuits of Portuguese chamber music. It is necessary to "open ones ears" and "try it out" various times in order to discover the nuances of the mixture, string quartet plus electronics, as well as the ideas, which lie in the foundations of the musical structures  – and this is not always an "easy and pleasant" task. Nevertheless, this release is certainly a proof that string quartet is a vivid form, always open to absorb new techniques and compositional strategies accompanying the disquiet spirit of our times – the Hegelian Zeitgeist, which reflects itself, metaphorically and more directly, in contemporary art.

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Smith Quartet

music for string quartet & electronics

Pedro Rebelo, Carlos Caires, Miguel Azguime, Pedro Amaral

miso records (mcd024.10)

The most obvious definition of "string quartet" is probably the following: a chamber music genre for a group of four instruments – two violin, viola and cello. Nevertheless some music dictionaries go further, by suggesting one of the most sophisticated musical forms, a kind of laboratory reserved for the most extraordinary musical ideas, which encountered its most elaborated expression in the work of Ludwig van Beethoven and Bela Bartók.

“Circuits of the Portuguese String Quartet”