Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Standing String Quartet?

Charles Noble wrote a response to a concert that the Emerson Quartet played last week in Carnegie hall with three quarters of their ensemble standing up. It seems that the Emerson Quartet's influence has rubbed off on some of the younger just-out-of-music-school quartets that are cropping up like violets just about everywhere.

To me chamber music, particularly playing string quartets, is a musical experience among equals, and four people sitting together, moving only when necessary, and watching one another's bows and faces, are playing together on a kind of equal turf. The musical product of the group of four has every chance of sounding like a unified sum that is greater than all its parts.

When the group of four stands up they become four standing individuals who each claim their own place on the stage, very much like the way a standing soloist takes a commanding place on the stage. The audience, which reacts physically (we all do) to what it sees as well as what it hears, has its attention pointed towards the players rather than towards the music. It is, as far as I'm concerned, the beginning of the end for any chance of a purely musical experience. What we get is "entertainment."

To me standing to play a string quartet is like standing to eat a meal. Sure, standing makes it possible for upper string players to move around more freely (though Noble said that the Emerson's violinists were kind of stiff), and moving around freely is one of the things that young string quartets are encouraged to do so that they can feel the music, I guess. Standing string quartet players look better as individuals because you can see the actual cut and style of their clothes, and costume is important when you are trying to provide a kind of (often expensive in cities) entertainment in order to compete for the "leisure dollar."

The idea of a string quartet concert as entertainment is a new thing for me. I like listening to string quartets for the music. I like the intimate experience of listening to four people sitting down and playing a piece of music for my enjoyment, my enlightenment, my education at times, and to satisfy my emotional needs. Entertainment I can get from the television.

I certainly hope that this is just a passing fad.

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1 comment:

Duane Johnson said...

I have what I think is a good analogy. I sing in a barbersop quartet. The traditional arrangement has been with the four individuals "cupped" around a single microphone, or two mics on a single stand. Some quartets have been starting to use individual hand-held mics. While this seems to work visually, and gives more freedom to the individual singers, it seems to me that it detracts from the unity of the performance, and in particular to the management of the sound, which now becomes subject to the talent (or lack thereof) of the person controlling the sound board. There is something to be said for tradition.