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7 September 2011

Overcoming string quartet phobia

Michael Sollis Image: Michael Sollis  

Michael Sollis took part in the Australian String Quartet's National Composers' Forum in August 2011. The workshop was organised with the Australian Music Centre as a supporting partner.

I have always been terrified of writing a string quartet - what could a developing Australian composer possibly have to offer the genre which boasts hundreds of masterworks by luminaries such as Beethoven, Ravel, Shostakovich, Haydn, etc. Perhaps my love for the string quartet repertoire was the reason I had avoided it for so long. Fortunately, the opportunity to have a piece workshopped and performed by the Australian String Quartet was too great for me to pass by - it took me out of my comfort zone and forced me to face my fears and put notes on the page.

And so emerged 'So she moaned, and as she uttered her moans…'. It is an adaptation of a work I had written several years earlier, The Raw and the Cooked - an impression of an Amazonian myth explaining the origins of death and disease. Adapting a pre-existing work was ideal for me: I had always known, in the back of my mind, that it could be turned into a string quartet, and this allowed me to concentrate primarily on the colours and combinations that have been so well developed in the string quartet for the past 250 years.

The Australian String Quartet had done an amazing job in interpreting what I had written, and in the workshops I was able to focus purely on the technical elements of the piece - hearing a different tone colour here and there, perhaps a change in tempo, dropping an octave once or twice - greatly increasing my understanding of the string quartet dynamic.

Watching five of my colleagues work with the quartet in a similar way was equally (if not more) valuable - a tactile awareness is so important for composers. Future hints will hopefully be stored in the memory banks for a while (for instance: did you know a second violinist strings their instrument differently from a first violinist for a deeper tone colour in the bottom strings? It seems so obvious now…)

Over the weekend I made a few alterations - nothing substantial, although upon reflection I have been toying with the idea of making some more fundamental changes to the piece. I think this is one of the hardest things for a composer - to know when to change something and when to leave it alone.

The Australian String Quartet performed my piece magnificently - that murky quality which I wanted, coupled with a melodic ground that was more or less in-stasis, and a gradual dynamic rise from beginning to end. But as a composer, at what point does murky become too ambiguous? When does melodic-stasis become too repetitive? I know I will never find answers to such subjective questions…

The hunt for definitive answers can be a risk of such occasions where peers and mentors meet - that every comment and suggestion made can become permanently ingrained in your consciousness, forever dictating the way you write as you aspire for that chimerical 'perfect' piece of music. Fortunately I was lucky enough to be in the company of not only inspiring musicians and composers but wonderful people - reminding me that after all 'it's only music' - and departed with what feels like a greater musical freedom of expression. It was a joy to share my music with such fantastic people, and to have learnt much along the way.

Further links

Michael Sollis - AMC profile
'ASQ National Composers' Forum - participants and commissions' (a news article on Resonate 9 August 2011)
Michael Sollis (www.michaelsollis.com)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Michael Sollis is a 26-year-old composer, researcher, and artistic director based in Canberra. He is artistic director and composer of the Griffyn Ensemble, and is an Associate composer with the Australian Music Centre.


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