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Emerson Quartet's Eugene Drucker on Thomas Adès's 'The Four Quarters'

On March 12, the Emerson String Quartet gives the world premiere performance of The Four Quarters by English composer Thomas Adès.

In this guest post, Eugene Drucker—violinist and founding member of the Emerson String Quartet—describes preparing the challenging Carnegie Hall–commissioned work.

The Adès Quartet has been a challenge for us because of its rhythmic difficulties, but it was an intriguing challenge due to the beauty of its textures and a clear sense of shape that comes across in each of the four movements. We had a valuable session with Tom in late January, when he stopped in New York on the way back from a triumphant premiere in Miami with the New World Symphony. He was very pleasant to work with, and as always when we play for a contemporary composer, we got a more focused idea of what he was looking for in the new work.

In our first series of rehearsals for this piece, we needed to drill many passages with a metronome so that we could organize our disparate rhythms around the common denominator of a steady beat. However, as soon as the meter changes to 2/12, for example, we had to reset that beat. The last movement is the most difficult to regulate with a metronome, because its meter is 25/16, which subdivides as 2/4 + 3/16 and 2/4 + 6/16. Tom said it could probably work somewhat slower than his metronome indication, as long as it had a dance-like and singing quality. Ultimately, as we have become more comfortable with it and found a quasi-intuitive way to stay together, especially in the last movement, some of the complexities of the rhythmic relationships fell away, and our handling of the fascinating musical material grew more flexible. I had the feeling that Tom, as a listener, was not quite so concerned with exactitude as when composing the music; instead, as most composers would, he listened more for overall shape and impact.

"Morning Dew"—the second movement—is almost entirely pizzicato, with many explosive chords interspersed with quieter plucking. One could imagine that the pizzicato explosions are like drops of dew on blades of grass, scintillating as they catch the sunlight. We're not sure to what extent Tom means his music to be descriptive of anything in the real world, or whether these titles are more tangential. I believe that they are suggestive, but only in the broadest sense. In any case, the propulsive second movement provides an effective contrast to the meditative opening of the quartet. The ostinato of pulsating repeated notes in "Days"—the third movement—may be meant to evoke the feeling of the passage of time. It begins quietly, builds to a sonorous and emphatic climax, and then subsides to a quiet if somewhat uneasy ending. The final movement, "The Twenty-Fifth Hour," refers to a feeling of time beyond what is in our normal day, or perhaps simply (and complexly) time beyond—in a more metaphysical sense.

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