Slim as a stiletto, a
Hundred forty notes.
The Signum Quartet has presented a challenge: compose a quartet consisting of no more than 140 notes–a quartweet. The note limit is the same as the character limit imposed on messages in Twitters, called tweets. You can read about it in my previous post on the quartweet.
Well, of course, Bach did it first, and masterfully.
I’ve been thinking about trying this since my original post on the subject. I had a piece in mind, and got it down near the limit; it was still too heavy-handed though. It was originally written as a choral piece, with four notes for each syllable. This piece sounded like what it would be like if one asked a quartet to play while wearing parkas and mittens. Dull, muffled, awkward. I needed to fix it.
So how do you write a string quartet when you don’t know how? First, don’t give up and say it can’t be done. Second, ask your music teacher.
What if you don’t have a music teacher? Another thing I did was listen to and follow the scores of quartets to get a feel for what it’s supposed to sound (and look) like. A fine endeavor, and pleasant, but it does take a lot of time. It’s a little like learning English by reading Shakespeare.
Another approach I took is more like a quote attributed to Michelangelo. He said a sculpture already existed in a block of marble, all he did was chip away the pieces that didn’t belong. Fortunately, music scores are more forgiving than marble, in that you can put chunks back in if you happen to lop off the nose.
But then things got hectic. Like Willie Dixon’s old song said, “I can’t quit you, baby/But I got to put you down a little while.” And so it was. Yes, this post contains quartets and American blues.
But I recently got to thinking about the quartweet again…and decided that I had the wrong song for the project. Part of the heavy-handedness was that it was ab initio clunky (there’s a word combination you don’t see often). But luckily, I thought of some possible replacements.
I had written a setting of Nunc dimittis, but I wasn’t sure it would work; it would need some tinkering. But there was another setting, this one of In Manus Tuas, and it occurred to me that the first iteration of words seemed just about the right length. So I counted the notes as written: 135. Q.E.D., right?
Well, not exactly. I ran into the same problem I had with the other piece–choral writing is not quartet writing (unless you’re Bach; and I think we’ve pretty firmly established where I stand in that regard).
So I’m continuing to chip away the bits that don’t sound like a cello, or a violin, put the nose back on the viola…and it’s coming along, but it’s not there yet.
And that is why this is The Quartweet Part One.