I Hubris –
II Response –
IV Self-censorship –
The work was commissioned through Musica Viva Australia in celebration of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s 10th anniversary with support from Ulrike Klein AO, Edinburgh International Festival, Konzerthaus Berlin, Stichting Strijkkwartet Biënnale Amsterdam, Carnegie Hall, and West Cork Chamber Music Festival.
I’ve always found it interesting to come in on radio broadcasts without knowing who’s playing and quite possibly not even knowing what piece of music is being played. It’s perhaps the most objective listening experience still available to us in a world of multiple instant-access listening platforms boasting ‘every recording ever made’, and the constant and often overbearing (self-)promotion of social media.
I’ll never forget, back in 2007, tuning in by chance to a broadcast on ABC, live from the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, of my first string quartet, Eclipse. I’d heard a rumour that one or two groups had taken on this piece as part of their repertoire that year. I’d missed the beginning of the performance, but as I listened, I became increasingly aware that this was one of the finest and most insightful interpretations of a piece of mine that I’d ever heard, and from players I’d never even met. I simply had to listen till the end to find out which group was playing: the Doric String Quartet from the UK. Since then the Dorics and I have become close friends and regular chamber music partners, having performed and recorded together numerous times over the past ten years.
This new quartet represents my first opportunity to write a work specifically for them. The artists were going to tour for Musica Viva Australia in June 2019, including performances at the Melbourne Recital Centre, which would celebrate its tenth anniversary in that year. There was interest in commissioning a new piece to mark the occasion. (MVA would soon be joined by philanthropist Ulrike Klein AO, as well as other presenters from around the world).
It’s my third string quartet and is subtitled ‘Hidden Agendas’. As that title implies, it isn’t wanting to paint too explicit or illustrative a picture. However with individual movement titles such as Hubris, Self-censorship and On-message, it’s fair to say that this piece – with its five partially connected movements exhibiting strong extremes of energy, dynamics and expression – is a somewhat oblique, abstract look at certain aspects of the strangely fascinating and invariably unsettling political climate of extreme personalities, Twitter-outrage, group-think and other challenges to the democratic process in which we seem to find ourselves as we enter the 2020s.
The music ranges from highly combustible and physical, through vividly virtuosic, to plaintively searching and intimate: even at times barely audible, including the whispery use of bows without rosin in movement IV. In the process, the quartet moves from unified huddle to one of increasingly splintered loyalties and go-it-alone statements. However the quartet ultimately finds itself herded back into some form of agreement by the end of the work, willingly or otherwise.
Above all, I hope it provides the listener with an interesting, possibly even thought-provoking way of spending 20 minutes of their time.
© Brett Dean 2019
Program note drawn from an interview which first appeared in* Limelight *magazine in April 2019.