String Quartet No. 1 – Rørsla
String Quartet No. 2 – Images
String Quartet No. 3 – Undirlýsi
String Quartet No. 4 – Contours
String Quartet No. 5 – Lady Frere
String Quartet No. 6 – Water and Ships – Yggdrasil Variations
What makes a string quartet ‘African’? Or put another way: when can we define a string quartet as being ‘African’? What qualities in its conception, its construction, and its composition mark it as specifically ‘African’? And does it really matter at all whether we call it African or not? In the context of composed concert music these questions are not exactly crucial, but they raise interesting issues. Can a non-African write a piece of African music? Or an African write a piece of Western concert music? And what is a piece of African (or for that matter Western) music anyway?See in this connection Muller, Stephanus, ‘Michael Blake’s String Quartets and the Idea of African Art Music’, Tempo, Vol. 76 Issue 300, April 2022, pp. 6-17.
While you scratch your head pondering these questions of existential irrelevance, consider Kristian Blak’s String Quartet No. 5 – Lady Frere from this superb new disc of his six string quartets, performed by the Polish group Neoquartet. How exactly does a composer living and working in the tiny, faraway Faroe Islands get to compose music deriving its inspiration from a small town in South Africa’s Eastern Cape? After all, the Faroes are situated in the North Atlantic Ocean about 655 kilometres off the coast of Northern Europe, roughly halfway between Norway and Iceland – and well over 10,000 kilometres from the Eastern Cape. The title Lady Frere remains intriguing even when you learn that Blak’s composition dates from 2008 as part of the Bow Project, conceived under the auspices of NewMusicSA (the South African section of the International Society of Contemporary Music, or ISCM), and curated by South African composer Michael Blake.
This new recording is in fact the second time the String Quartet No. 5 has appeared on CD, each time performed by a different ensemble. It is included on the double album The Bow Project of 2010 (FKT 044). Things begin to become even clearer when you read Blak’s brief liner note there:
In 2005 I discussed the Bow Project with Michael Blake at a festival in Bolivia where he gave me sound and video recordings of songs performed by Nofinishi Dywili. In String Quartet No 5 I have taken general inspiration from the music on the recordings, but I have also used more specific ideas from several songs and dances, in particular Umzi KaMzwandile. I have not used bow songs exclusively, but also rhythms transcribed from the dancers’ feet, and I use a vocal melody recorded by Dave Dargie in Nofinishi’s house in Ngqoko Village, Lady Frere, at the end of the quartet.
Mrs Nofinishi Dywili (1928-2002) was born in the remote Ngqoko village near Lady Frere where she spent her whole life. From an early age she learned how to play the traditional Xhosa ‘Uhadi’ music bow by observing and imitating other uhadi players, and became a leading exponent that traditional art. According to Blake, the Bow Project was envisaged to give as many as twenty composers ‘the opportunity to study, reimagine, and recompose music from one of the greatest musical traditions in our country’ (Blake 2010: 2).
While Kristian Blak’s String Quartet No. 5 is neither an ‘African quartet’ nor a piece of pastiche African music (and was never intended to be either), it is indeed a Nordic composer’s personal and imaginative response to melodic and rhythmic elements in the music of a totally different culture from his own – seeds from Africa, if you like, that he has nurtured in non-African soil. It’s an intriguing work to listen to, and one you can enjoy and appreciate on its own merits without knowing anything about its background. That said, it’s worth bearing in mind that Blak has a great interest in ethnic and folk music of Faroe Islands and other countries. Furthermore, the section ‘Faces of the Faroe Islands’ on the website ‘Official Gateway to the Faroe Island 2019’ tells us that Blak ‘combines inspiration from ethnic musical traditions as well as new composition techniques, creating an artistic unity’.
A musician espousing a diverse range of music, Blak was born in Denmark in 1947 but as a young man resettled in the Faroe Islands in 1974. He seems to have felt a strong affinity for the remoteness and rugged natural beauty of the Faroes, having remained there ever since. In doing so he has become a leading light in the Faroese musical world. From his website we learn that he has written a wide array of music: solo instrumental and choral works, chamber music, jazz suites, as well as symphonic music, ‘uniting ethnic music with new compositional techniques’. He also performs with his own jazz and folk music ensembles. His diverse output is listed in two distinct categories on the website of The Association of Faroese Composers: contemporary classical music, and jazz, rock, pop, folk music.
Blak’s string quartet output, described in the brief liner notes as comprising ‘a central part of his work as a composer’, stretches over nearly thirty years. The first one appeared in 1985 and the latest in 2014. They vary considerably in length and layout: No. 1 (Rørsla, 1975) has two movements, No. 2 (Images, 1987) has five, No. 4 (Contours, 2001) has four, while Nos. 3 (Undirlýsi, 1992), 5 (Lady Frere, 2008) and 6 (Water and Ships, 2014) are single-movement works.
If Blak’s Lady Frere Quartet derives its inspiration from Southern African traditional music, the other five quartets lean heavily on influences from the composer’s remote island habitat, giving rise to works that relate in various ways to aspects of his unique natural and human environment. The two movements belonging to String Quartet No. 1 are titled Rørsla (Movement) and Dansur (Dance). According to the liner notes, each of them sets out to explore musical movement. Unsurprisingly, they are busy and energetic, often dizzily so in their rhythmic and melodic drive. The first of them explores (in particular) polyphonic textures and ostinato sequences, broken by moments of silence. Are these echoes of the sea’s movement around the island coastline, or of the powerful winds and the scudding of low clouds across the sky? The listener is projected into a world of imagination where no interpretation is improbable.
The four movements of String Quartet No. 2 – Images are each inspired by a different painting by Faroe artist Ingálvur av Rayni (1920-2005). The four paintings were part of an exhibition of his work held at the National Gallery of the Faroe Islands in 1984. The Wikipedia article on the artist gives the most detailed information on him in English that is available. From it we gain some idea of the artist’s style which Blak reflects in his music.
The powerful nature of the Faroes, which makes an immediate visual impact on any painter, is the all-embracing theme in Reyni’s art. But he experiences nature from the inside, as structures, tones, and fragments of a universe offering opportunities for graphical treatment of form and movement, light colours and rhythms. The expressions of nature become the basis of an increasingly abstract idiom. … In his strongly painted, usually large and resolute compositions, the work breaks out from the inside. Warm earth tones glow from the deepest layers, sizzle when they touch cold, grey areas, and set light to others. The drama lies in the conflict of the colours and the dynamic movements of the brushstrokes. From time to time the rhythm is further emphasised by scratches made with the handle of the brush in the thick, varnish-like layers of shiny colour. This is tangible painting.
Each of the four movements bears the title of the particular painting Blak selected: 1. Reyð genta (Red Girl); 2. Ventramorgun (Winter Morning); 3. Várkvøld á Høgareyni (Spring Evening on Høgareyni); and 4. Genta við Vindeygað (Girl at the Window). Images of these painting are included in the liner notes.
Dating from 1992, the Third String Quartet is titled Undirlysi and was composed for performance at the Dark Music Days Festival in Iceland. According to the liner notes the musical material ‘is based on impressions of light. In the Faroe Islands the light is rarely constant, always changing’. The work is conceived as a single long movement of about fifteen and a half minutes in duration, comprising nine parts, which ‘move along gradually, flowing from one to the next like changes of light, the middle parts being the darkest’. The Faroese word ‘undirlysi’ means ‘under light’ and refers to ‘a special kind of light which shines from under clouds’. This ‘under light’ is particularly related to parts seven and eight of the Quartet.
Melodic lines derived from coastal contours of the Faroe Islands form the basis of String Quartet No. 4 (2001). Viewing the islands from the northwest, travelling from Enniberg to Mykines, supplies a continuous series of contours which underpin the four movements of the Quartet’s formal construction: 1. Viðoy; 2. Eysturoy; 3. Mýlingur; and 4. Vágar – Mykines. The relevant contours for each movement are illustrated in the liner notes, from ruggedly cliff-like and uneven to more gently undulating.
In 1985 Blak composed ‘The Four Towers’, originally for a ballet played by his ensemble Yggdrasil and based on the poem ‘Barnetegning’ (Child’s Drawing) by the Faroenese poet William Heinesen. The String Quartet No. 6 bears the title Water and Ships – Yggdrasil Variations and derives its thematic and melodic material from the first part of the 1985 composition, itself based on the first part of the poem which describes the child’s drawing of the tower in the West:
The tower in the West
stands in the midst of the great sea.
Ships sail by and shout:
The tower in the West is called
The album features Neoquartet, a string ensemble from Poland who focus on performing contemporary music. Neo quartet aims to collaborate with contemporary composers in order to make their music familiar to a wider audience, and they also organize their own festival (NeoArte Synthesizer of Arts Festival) which has been held in Gdansk, Poland, since 2012. Their playing on this disc is masterful, enhanced by an exceptionally well recorded, lifelike and beautifully balanced recording – a technically superb production.
My only grumble about the album is the pitifully sparse liner notes, essentially a short paragraph on each quartet, although the booklet itself is lavishly illustrated in full colour. Is it too much to hope that the purpose behind providing minimal information about the music is aimed at encouraging the listener to concentrate on the music rather than on what might be written about it? It is certainly worth the effort, as Blak’s string quartets and the playing on this disc are refreshing, stimulating, and totally absorbing.
Blak, Kristian. 2010. Liner notes for The Bow Project, Nightingale String Quartet, FKT085
Blak, Kristian. 2022. Website accessed 25 October 2022.
Blake, Michael. 2010. ‘The Origins and History of the Bow Project: A Chronology’, liner booklet for The Bow Project, pp. 2-3. Nightingale Quartet, Nofinishi Dywili. FKT 044.
Faces of the Faroe Islands accessed 9 November 2022.
Faroe Islands: The Official Gateway to the Faroe Islands. 2019 accessed 9 November 2022.
Felagið Føroysk Tónaskøld (The Association of Faroese Composers) accessed 14 November 2022.
Neoquartet. 2022. Website accessed 13 November 2022.
Reyni, Ingálvur av. 2022. Wikipedia article (anonymous) accessed 14 November 2022.
|1.||See in this connection Muller, Stephanus, ‘Michael Blake’s String Quartets and the Idea of African Art Music’, Tempo, Vol. 76 Issue 300, April 2022, pp. 6-17.|