By Greg Cahill | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
“Music writing brings out the most confident, no-F’s-given version of myself,” the avant-garde Scottish composer Anna Meredith, a recipient of the prestigious 2020 Mercury Prize for composition, once told the online publication Loud and Quiet. True to her word, the string works on Nuc (Universal), the latest album by the Ligeti Quartet, include the newly commissioned Meredith piece “Solstice In/Solstice Out” for string quartet and trumpet, as well as eight other works by the 45-year-old composer, who arranged several of the pieces included on Nuc.
Ligeti violist Richard Jones chuckles when asked if Meredith’s music is viola friendly. “Ha-ha, there is a kind of ironic self-awareness in Anna’s music that I think a lot of viola players might relate to,” he says. “And, yes, it is music full of exaggerated gestures and intricate textures, which make for very exciting inner parts.”
The members of Ligeti—Jones, first violinist Freya Goldmark, second violinist Patrick Dawkins, and cellist Val Welbanks—are no strangers to adventurous, experimental contemporary music. After all, this is an ensemble that in 2018 launched a concert tour of UK planetariums. Since its founding in 2010, the quartet (named for the Hungarian composer György Ligeti) has commissioned more than 100 works. Meredith’s always engaging, often fanciful acoustic and electronic work exists within a bristling alternate universe that ranges from pop to carnival sounds to wildly dissonant electronica. The lead track, “Tuggemo,” is a dizzying example of the latter, originally commissioned by another string quartet with a penchant for innovation. “We gave the UK premiere of ‘Tuggemo,’ which was commissioned by Kronos for their ‘50 for the Future’ scheme, a project creating new repertoire for developing string-quartet playing—we took part in the inaugural concert at Carnegie Hall back in 2016,” Jones says. “The rest of the album is a compilation of Anna’s quartet music over the last decade or so, plus new arrangements by me.”
What was the advantage of working closely with Meredith?
The difference between working with a contemporary composer and one not from the past is that rather than being interpreters, you can also be collaborators. Traditionally in “classical” music, you extract meaning and how to best communicate ideas through the score. And in that case, I see a fairly clear division between the role of the composer and of the performer. When you work with a composer that you can talk to, the line is often a lot more blurry—you can have a dialogue about the realization of a piece of music and, quite often, if the piece is written for you, the work takes on characteristics of your playing and ideas. In which case, there is overlap between the composer and performer, because to a certain extent the performer is involved in the composition and the composer can be involved in the performance through rehearsal. To me, this collaborative approach is a more natural kind of music making and, in all honesty, I find it a historical peculiarity that we nowadays have such a clear dividing line between composer and performer—we know that Mozart, Haydn, and Bach, for example, combined the two within their practice. I actually think that today, there are increasingly composers who perform and performers who compose. Anna Meredith is an excellent example of this.
How does Nuc fit in with your previous recording inspired by the traditional folk music of Tuva and Sardinia?
Our previous album—Songbooks, Vol. 1, released on the Nonclassical label in 2020—was similarly based on music that sits across musical genres. We got really interested in the relationship between throat singing—or overtone singing—and our stringed instruments. So we commissioned composer Christian Mason to create new pieces, which explore overtone practices from around the world and the way in which these can shape our own practice as string players.
And how does this new recording fit in with the Ligeti ethos?
I could read that question as either Ligeti, the composer himself, or us, as a group named after him—I hope the answer isn’t too different though. We chose to name ourselves after Ligeti because his music brings together avant-garde spirit alongside playfulness and humor. In many ways, it is complex, but he always guides the listener along—his pieces are, in a way, full of pop hooks. Anna is similarly a composer who works outside of traditional boundaries—her music is satisfyingly complex, but also finds a way to bring you in. And it’s often really funny.