As the more than decade-long relationship between Richard Whalley and Quatuor Danel bears new fruit with a major new quartet, Composers Edition’s Dan Goren talks with Richard and violist Vlad Bogdanas to find out more.
DG: Richard – Great to see you returning to the string quartet with Mantle Plume. Looking at the score I think audiences can expect quite a ride! Tell me about the ideas behind it.
Mantle Plume is inspired by Icelandic geology – I’ve always had a fascination with Iceland and in 2016 I hiked the Laugarvegur Trail which was amazing! Iceland sits on a mantle plume, a pool of hot magma underpinning a thin area of the earth’s crust on the mid-Atlantic ridge, hence so much volcanism. Moreover, Iceland is the one place in the world where the mid-Atlantic ridge can be observed above sea level, revealing geological features that would normally only be found at the bottom of oceans. Factor in its geographic position, in the path of so many north Atlantic storms and at the boundary between the gulf-stream and the Arctic, and you have the recipe for an incredibly distinctive landscape. Geology in Iceland takes place in fast-forward compared with most other places on earth: volcanoes are constantly forming and then eroded or ground down by glaciers and rivers. Fire meets ice, creation meets destruction – the consequences of a battle between elemental forces.
My goal is that Mantle Plume sounds and feels as though it were created by a force of nature. This is easier said than done, but I took inspiration from the shapes in nature, including elevation profiles of landscapes and the proportions of the distances between waterfalls on a river. I have also taken inspiration from natural processes such as the flowing of lava, the eroding of river canyons and accumulation over centuries of layers of lava that have gradually built the landscape. There are four distinct movements, grouped into two pairs and though each movement concerns itself with a particular aspect of the landscape, there are many connections between ideas in different parts of the piece.
DG: What part has nature played in inspiring your music over the years?
I’ve always been deeply inspired by nature. But it’s only in the last 4 or 5 years or so that I’ve consciously attempted to apply this to composition, most notably in Wonderland (for chamber ensemble) and Iapetus Suture (for saxophone quartet). Partly this is driven by sheer awe at the magnitude of the forces that have created over millions of years the natural world we live in. I am inspired by the beauty and incredible variety of nature, which constantly blows my mind. I’m also terrified by the stupidity of much of so much of humanity’s interactions with nature, though there is something reassuring about vastness of geological time: mountains and oceans are created over hundreds of millions of years, and nothing we can do will stop plate tectonics.
DG: This is second time you’ve worked together on a new work (the first being Interlocking Melodies, 2007) and this looks more ambitious! How does the relationship work and how has it developed over time?
RW : Working with the Quatuor Danel is a highlight of my career – their performances, whether of Schubert or Shostakovich or Lachenmann are incredibly vivid and committed. Through my work at the University of Manchester I’ve also had the privilege of performing with them on the piano, which is an unbelievable experience. They’re an amazing quartet and I am awed by their sound and their energy. We’re incredibly lucky at the University of Manchester to have them as our quartet in residence, visiting several times a year to perform and work with students.
This is a lot to live up to. I actually got quite blocked writing Interlocking Melodies before finding a solution, because of the pressure to do something brilliant, as well as the weight of the quartet repertoire. String quartets can do virtually anything so you don’t have the constraints of most instrumental combinations which can make it harder to find the sound-world for a piece. For both quartets I took extra-musical inspiration. In 2007, it was a painting, Untitled XIII by De Kooning that unlocked me, whereas with Mantle Plume it’s to Icelandic geology that I looked. The two pieces are very different: the earlier work focussed on transformations of a single idea, whereas the latter is much more open and varied. Mantle Plume is also more exploratory in its approach to sound, which seems appropriate for the subject matter, and also reflects how my compositional interests have moved on within the last decade. But both works have a preoccupation with musical line, and layering of textures in common.
VB: Since we premiered Interlocking Melodies in 2007 we had many occasions to work with Richard, be it during workshops or during performances of various chamber music works. We recorded Interlocking Melodies in 2013 which was a good opportunity to go deeper into Richard’s very personal and poetical sonic universe. What we share is not only based on our work together but also on a sincere friendship that has developed through the years. We know each other well now and it’s with great excitement that we are preparing ourselves to write this new chapter entitled Mantle Plume.
DG: Founded in 1991 Quatuor Danel is well known for its interpretations of Shostakovich and Weinberg as well as newer works by composers such as Richard which would appear to present quite different challenges. How does your approach differ between the two?
VB: The eras and the aesthetics might be different but the challenges are pretty much similar: playing together, in tune and finding a common musical direction. Our main goal is always the same: trying to do justice to the composer’s will. The difference is that, with living composers, we can have a direct interaction which is absolutely crucial. Not only does it leads us to a better understanding of the piece but it also encourages us to rethink constantly our approach on the music written by composers with whom we meet up only in our dreams. What is appreciable with Richard is that he knows perfectly what we like in terms of musical indications and layout. This definitely the case with Mantle Plume.
DG: How is 2019 shaping up for the quartet?
For 2019 we will focus more than ever on the seventeen String Quartets by Mieczysław Weinberg. We will celebrate the hundred years of his birth with complete cyces in Manchester, Paris, Washington, Hamburg, Amsterdam and with special events in London and in Taipei. Other highlights will include tours in North America and in Japan, alongside with concerts in Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway. And of course, there is our residency at the University of Manchester, our home away from home. After Manchester concerts Richard and I really enjoy going to a great pub called Sandbar to have some Worcestershire sauce crisps with a good local ale. Thanks to Richard, I’m quite good now at pronouncing Worcestershire sauce!
DG: The very best of British! And a major premiere born of a great partnership to boot!
RW: I’ve been wanting to write something ambitious for them for some time and I hope this piece does justice to the quartet’s brilliance. I can hear the individual players’ style of playing when I imagine them playing it, so I’m really excited to hear this turn into reality at the premiere!
Mantle Plume will be available from Composers Edition in due course.
Saturday 19 January
Tivoli Vredenburg concert hall
Utrecht (World Premiere)
Friday 29 March
Martin Harris Centre