It’s not every day of the week that eleven new string quartets are premiered. But that’s what the Borealis String Quartet did in CMC BC’s Murray Adaskin Salon on Friday, June 9, for a young audience packed into our small, intimate new performance space. The works they performed were remarkable for their variety and originality of voice, coming from composers ranging in age from twelve to their mid-thirties, and notable for their diversity.

The eleven short new string quartets they composed are Tango by Thomas Beckman; Brother by Daniel Majer; Water Dances by Angela So; Nocturne by Simon Rasmussen; Magical Thinking by Duncan Maunders; When the Moon is in the Sky by Qinglin Bruce Bai; Julia’s Lullaby by Brian Wong; Introspection by Konstantin Klimov; Garibaldi Sketches by Christine Hudson; Dark Night of the Soul by Eliot Doyle; and Renaissance Dances, Set 1 by Stefan Hintersteininger. (For a detailed programme and notes, please click the link below:)

Coulthard Readings Program v4

The Jean Coulthard String Quartet Readings (named after BC Legacy Composer Jean Coulthard and in tribute to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s groundbreaking annual Jean Coulthard Readings) are designed to offer emerging composers the invaluable opportunity of hearing their pieces read, rehearsed and performed by a professional string quartet. The program’s unique format, launched in cooperation with Kwantlen Polytechnic University, makes it possible for composers to revise and refine works in close collaboration with the Borealis String Quartet and a Composer-Mentor over the course of several weeks. The Composer-Mentor for this year’s seminar was Farshid Samandari, and the program and concert were both free thanks to a generous grant from the Deux Mille Foundation.

There is something fundamental to the very nature of music contained within our concept of using a string quartet as the medium for these readings. It was the Greeks, specifically Pythagoras, who first tried to understand why some sounds when combined seemed more ‘harmonious’ than others. He found that when the lengths of vibrating strings are ratios of integers (e.g. 2 to 3, 3 to 4), the tones produced will be harmonious, and the smaller the integers the more harmonious the sound.

Creating music for string quartet, therefore, connects us back to the very beginnings of our understanding of what music, and what harmony, is. In writing for string quartet, composers are writing for sixteen vibrating strings of constantly varying lengths, according to scientific principles first codified by Pathagoras in the 6th Century BC, more than 2200 years ago.

We also know that western polyphony evolved out of Gregorian Chant sometime in the 9th Century:

By the eleventh century, descants, or elaborations, were being sung above a cantus firmus, the protracted notes of a plainchant melody. Those who sustained the prolonged notes were called ‘holders’ or tenors, while those who sang the descant part ‘against’ them were called contratenors. The contratenors often sang the ‘high’ part, eventually called the altus , and, later, those who sang a part intertwining with the altos were named–predictably–contraltos. Eventually these parts were surrounded by two outer contrapuntal voices, appropriately named sopranus  (above) and bassus  (below).

(Lawrence: Antiquity to 1590)

When composers write for four independent voices ranging from high to low, therefore, they are in fact revisiting the foundations of polyphony itself.

I would go further. That beyond this exploration of the underlying principals and foundational elements of music, by writing for stringed instruments composers may actually be tapping into the fundamental nature of reality itself. String theory suggests that the fundamental particles or building blocks of matter are strings of different types and lengths vibrating at different frequencies, which express themselves as different types of particles.

The official String Theory Website states that “musical notes created by guitar could be said to be excitation modes of a string under tension. In string theory, the elementary particles we observe in particle accelerators could be thought of as the “musical notes” or excitation modes of elementary strings.”

Kudos, then, to the eleven composers who have created such original, beautiful, evocative, and remarkable works of art using nothing more than sixteen vibrating strings. In doing so they have participated in many hundreds of years of western musical development, and touched the fundamental nature of reality itself. No small accomplishment!