commissioned for the Kronos Quartet by the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and Viking Press Inc
I wrote The Songlines quartet in the summer of 1988 whilst staying with Bruce and Elizabeth Chatwin in Oxfordshire. Bruce and I were planning the opera The Man With Footsoles Of Wind, which was intended as an extension in another medium of some of the ideas in Bruce’s novel The Songlines. The quartet was written as a prelude to the opera, and indeed the same material appears in both pieces.
Chatwin described his novel as 'an imaginary conversation on an imaginary journey'. For me, the conversation in this quartet is between abstract and concrete imagery in music. The journey is an exploration of the nature of material.
Philip Guston tells of working on a painting in the 1950’s where, in an effort to get away from form and into the material, he stood close up to the canvas, working quickly and not stepping back to look until the work was finished. I juxtaposed very different kinds of music in the order they occurred to me, not thinking ahead, and allowing the material to unfold at its own pace. If there was a ‘sense of form’ at work, it was covert. However, I didn’t use everything that occurred to me. I tried to follow Guston’s suggestion of 'eliminating both that which is yours already and that which is not yet yours' - in other words, keeping only that which is becoming yours.
In Hunting:Gathering I exercised some structural control over the piece by trying to keep all the material at the same scale. In The Songlines quartet the images appear unevenly and abruptly, as in a dream, some writ large, some modest. In this revised version of the piece I made some concession to formal thinking by framing the central section with two dance movements. The first movement is built on various running and walking rhythms and includes references to Zulu guitar music and a Zulu iHubo (clan or regimental anthem). In the second movement there is a paraphrase of music from the Hamar of Ethiopia and a Zulu whistle piece. The third movement is indebted to the music of Mali. I used these references as a ‘concrete’ foil to the more abstract music in the piece. Africa becomes a passing memory: my harmonisation and re-working of the music dispels a sense of locale.
But it is above all the choice of medium, the string quartet, that places the material firmly in the Western classical tradition. Japanese prints informed every aspect of van Gogh’s late work - the colour, the sense of light, the formal thinking. Yet van Gogh’s choice of oil paint on canvas makes the painting Western European. His handling of the medium makes it personal, even when, in the very late pieces, he repaints the works of Rembrandt, Millet or Delacriox.