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7 September 2011

A balanced place amongst all those fifths

Melody Eötvös Image: Melody Eötvös  

Melody Eötvös 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.

The raw sound of intervals being tuned in fifths, searching for a clean, dreamy, perfect diad; coming from four separate sources and spanning over three octaves in open strings… that is the sound of a string quartet tuning themselves into the beginning of a single, whole, reconciled instrument.

That precious interval which you hear at the core of the string quartet is where everything begins. Within each individual string you hear more of them, in beautiful partials above the fundamental. Outside and away from open fifth double-stops, they're still there, hidden within each draw of the bow across each string, stopped or not; swarms of frequencies layering up upon each other, resulting in the deceptively modest pitch that our simple, human ears pick up on.

You can't escape them. Even within intense chromatic contexts and ambiguous tonalities, they're still there, underlying all and writhing inside each sonority. The temptation of double, triple and quadruple stops, turning the quartet's amplitude and strength into an ensemble almost twice its size, only fuels the possibilities. This was just one of the many dialogues running in my head while I was writing Dragonflies. Let me explain just a little more…

Diving into this piece, I was already armed from my previous year at the National Composers Forum. My string quartet composition muscles had been flexed and I was limbered up. I have always been susceptible to using the open-string tuning to actually compose out my ideas and bind my motives and gestures together. But, I also know that the ear gets tired of this sound remarkable easily.

Reaching Dragonflies this year, the most difficult thing was to match up the development in harmonic language that I have been spiralling through progressively, with working around the binding outlines of the open fifths in all the instruments I had to work with (scordatura is too clumsy and, at this point, would only create more problems than solutions). I can't go into any more detail than that at the moment but I think it's important to emphasise this as an essential part of how I think about this piece and string quartet writing as a whole.

So, by this thrilling return to Adelaide in August, and the greater ease with which Sophie, Anne, Sally, and Rachel had gained access to the notes and the overall life of the piece, I felt I had moved closer towards finding that balanced place amongst all those fifths; fighting against them and sometimes running with them, but always staying in control of the music. All my love and gratitude to this amazing quartet and for how much they've given me over the past two years!

Further links

Melody Eötvös - AMC profile
'ASQ National Composers' Forum - participants and commissions' (a news article on Resonate 9 August 2011)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Melody Eötvös is currently studying in the PhD Composition program at Indiana University.


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