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 string quartet & amplification

first performed by Viridian quartet & Tim Cooper (sound), 2010, Glasgow.

About the Piece

Evangelist is written for string quartet with amplification.  From one point of view it is a quintet; with the fifth musician behind the mixing desk, adjusting levels throughout. 

It seems to me a misconception to assume that an amplified ensemble sounds the same but louder.  One makes a constant trade-off between the amplified and the acoustic: detail versus depth, volume versus intimacy.  It is perhaps akin to shining a strong but coloured light on an object - it illuminates and clarifies but also imbues, filters, tints and even misleads. 

In Evangelist, my aim was to establish a fluid, dynamic relationship between the quartet and the amplified sound; a relationship which not only develops over the course of the piece, but one which at certain points the music actually depends on.

To put it another way: in an acoustic (non-amplified) performance situation, there tends to be a fairly clear and perceptible correlation between what a player does and the sound that results.  We see the violinist move the bow slowly across the strings and we hear a quiet held note – there’s a clear cause and effect.  When the sound is amplified, the equation is a bit less straightforward: we see the violinist move the bow slowly across the string, but we may hear a note which, while in essence still quiet, seems to dominate the ensemble.  Not only this, the main source of the sound has relocated to a pair of speakers at the front of the stage.  In effect the amplification interrupts the direct link between the player’s intention and the resultant sound and begins to act as a mediator between them.

It is this dialogue between player intention and actual sound, between performed dynamics and actual volume, and between quartet, amplification & audience that interested me in Evangelist.  The piece opens with the viola playing fairly softly, but mixed in such a way that the sound sits atop the rest of the quartet playing much more aggressively.  At other points in the piece, an instrument is mixed much lower than the rest, as if the player has stepped out of the quartet.  And finally, still at other points, in much the same way that a player might have several bars rest, the amplification “rests”, i.e. is left static with no changes in the mix, allowing the focus to remain on the quartet’s ability to balance itself unaided.   

There were three reasons for the title Evangelist.  Firstly, the idea of the religious evangelist and the way he uses his voice to convey the ‘message’ is something that fascinates me, despite my having no religious convictions.  Secondly, there seems to me to be an almost religious significance attributed to the string quartet within a composer’s output, often viewed as a creative pinnacle in his/her career.  Finally, as clichéd as it sounds, the title came to me in a dream.

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