String Quartet no.1
("Between the National and the Bristol")
The first string quartet was commissioned by the Vienna Festival for the Arditti Quartet to perform in October 1985.
Until then I had never considered writing a quartet partly because, although a string player myself, as a bassist I found myself outside the quasi-privacy of such an ensemble. However, as a way of ingratiating myself into this closed world I introduced aspects of the double bass into the piece. The passage with cello and viola playing heavily in octaves in the bottom register, for example, simulates the sound of the bass, and extended solos in natural harmonics, such as those in the coda, are part of the bass's technique. In fact a great deal of the music is in the high register, most notably towards the end where each instrument de-tunes a pair of strings and thereafter plays only in harmonics, both natural and artificial. The first violin and viola tune their top two strings down a semitone, and the second violin and cello tune their bottom two strings down a semitone. The original idea was that natural harmonics would be played on the "artificial" (i.e. de-tuned) strings and artificial harmonics on the "natural" strings.
My knowledge of the players in the Arditti Quartet of that period informed some aspects of the writing in a slightly capricious way. For example, I was least familiar with the playing of Levine Andrade and so I made sure that he, the violist, had the most interesting part at the opening, and several solos throughout. Irvine Arditti's reputation as a phenomenal sight-reader led me to have the first violin's part on the first page of the score almost entirely in open G string semibreves. The first moment of 'romantic' warmth was given to Alex Balanescu, at that time second violin in the quartet, and Rohan de Saram's cello was placed in a very high register for the first few minutes.
When I started to write the piece, my initial idea had been to write a quartet in which each instrument would relate to a composer associated with it as a player, the whole quartet serving as a kind of imaginary séance bringing them together. In this scenario the composers were Ysayë, Vieuxtemps, Hindemith (or Kupkovic), and Schönberg. In the event, due to the need to accelerate delivery of the score to coincide with the Arditti's passing through Heathrow, there was only time to allude to Ysayë, as composer, violinist, quartet leader and to his connection with Busoni - his occasional accompanist and butt of one of Ysayë's best practical jokes, in the Queen's Hotel Birmingham.
The Quartet's subtitle brings together another reference to a hotel and to Vienna. During the time that I was working with Robert Wilson on The CIVIL WarS I undertook research into the life of Mata Hari in order to find text for an aria. One night in 1906, unknown to each of them, the three most famous dancers of the period were staying in Vienna. Maud Allan was at the National, Mata Hari was at the Hotel Bristol, and Isadora Duncan, another reference within the quartet, was staying in a hotel "somewhere between the National and the Bristol".
The piece is dedicated to my sister, Hazel Davies, who died during the time I was revising the piece and, at the suggestion of Alex Balanescu, adding a few bars to the already difficult coda.