It begins, I suppose, with a title. For his third string quartet, Swiss composer Jürg Frey combines elements immediately recognisable to anyone who’s been following his work over the past decade or two with ones that might initially surprise, even if they too seem strangely familiar. So there’s the opening slow homophonic chords separated by long pauses, followed by a very quiet shimmering as the Quatuor Bozzini gently scratch their bows across their strings. So far, so Frey. But the chords sometimes fall into patterns that draw on cadences and sequences so common to Western classical music that they could have been lifted from a piece by Beethoven or Schubert — a tendency perhaps often latent in Frey’s music, but never so explicit (as far as I’ve heard) than here. Then there’s the gorgeous, swooning, long descent by a violin, like a falling ray of light, that gets passed on to the viola. Has the music of the Wandelweiser group’s most Romantic composer ever been more Romantic than this?
That title, though. Can it be possible today to write a string quartet without trying to work through a relationship to the history of the form and, by extension, pretty much the whole of Western orchestral music? Those familiar cadences and patterns strain for weightlessness — the ahistorical presence of light and volume. They don’t quite make it. Yet the shortfall, the gap between the certainty and inevitability they aim for and the precarity they land in, would itself seem part of the work, a negative space in which time runs backwards. I’m thinking of Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993), a concrete cast of the inside of a Victorian terraced house, with the imprint of doors, windows, and fireplaces left visible: architecture gaining historical consciousness. Could a string quartet become similarly self-aware? Listen to those chords: they are not random, certain among them repeat, so obviously that even I can hear it. They recall not just each other, but also a certain way of belonging together in time, a belonging that is itself a reference to another age of possibilities. These sounds remember, even as they strive for instantaneity. They desire both remembering and fading into silence, two times at once. For how much longer will anyone be able to write string quartets, anyway?
The second piece on the Bozzini recording, Unhörbare zeit, adds two percussionists to the ensemble, and emphasises the string quartet’s Romantic leanings with its contrastingly more open and exploratory style. There’s lots of shimmering, rumbling constellations of sound, an indistinct haziness that beguiles the ear. A call-and-response section of sorts is followed by high-pitched, almost screeching chords, then more gently, a sort of tip-toeing around. The work ends with a repeated two-chord dirge followed by a third, tense chord. Compared with the string quartet, Unhörbare zeit doesn’t shower the listener with beautiful melodies or overt Romantic references, nor does it wrestle with its relationship to the ghosts of music past; perhaps this results in a less challenging listen, though nonetheless an absorbing one.