Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Writing for String Quartet

After many years, I have learned, when writing for string quartet, that it can be useful to write some music for a violin, another violin, a viola, and also for a cello. It may also be useful if the music for these four instruments can be played at the same time and it's also potentially useful if all four instruments can be played in some proximity to one another. Of course, these are all variables and it's worth bearing in mind that the string quartet we have -- which is not necessarily the string quartet we might dream about -- comes out of a habit, in tonal music, of featuring three-note chords, with at least one of the tones doubled, perhaps at an octave or multiple thereof, and the occasional chord with more or less than three notes, and in general, a spacing among the tones with larger intervals at the bottom and smaller ones at the top; this last feature is reflected in the tuning proportions among the instruments, of 1:2:3:3. For violinists and violas, diatonic tones and their chromatic neighbors share a finger, while cellists can give a finger to each semitone. All string players are trained to play passage work — often the dark matter that fills up most of a piece of music —  based on these assignments of fingers. It may be useful to keep a fiddle around to see how your music fits the hand; it may be more useful to keep a fiddler around to show you.  Finally, there are lots of tricks these instruments can do, alone or together, involving strings, bodies, fingers, bows, mutes, harmonics, and so forth and in all their combinations, but your mileage may vary and, don't forget, the balance among egos in a quartet is a delicate thing and each individual may well require regular stroking, whether through the notes you write her or him, or other, non-musical, forms of affection.  

1 comment:

Elaine Fine said...

I think that the best way to write for string quartet (or for strings) is to keep the fiddle around and learn to play it well enough to play second fiddle in a string quartet! Or better still, get a viola and learn to play it. Then play it in a string quartet. That's how you really learn.