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Will treating the string quartet like a miniature concerto instead of like a 4 voiced sonata help?

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Alan Belkin together with Thomas Goss have helped me blossom as a composer over the past year. So has this rainstorm of compositional ideas that I have been in for months. I have been watching Thomas Goss's MOOOC T1 course on string scoring and Alan Belkin's Analysis for Composers course a lot lately. And after watching the 2 videos that Alan Belkin has that are specifically about concertos, I had a revelation. You see, I have been having trouble writing a string quartet over the past 2 years. Multiple incomplete attempts where I write the first theme in full and sometimes even the transition in full, but reach a musical fog once I am at the second theme. I think Alan Belkin may have helped me crack the mystery as to why I have never written a complete string quartet piece or even a complete string quartet movement, yet can write for duet and even trio quite easily and why I find orchestral repertoire easier to write than quartet repertoire(no, I'm not joking, that's the way it has been for months).

As I am thinking of writing a string quartet for the third time and trying to get at least 1 movement finished if not the entire piece, I see so many concerto-like options within the confines of the quartet, these just being a few:

  • String Quartet plays tutti -> Like an orchestral moment in a concerto
  • Single instrument plays a solo over accompanying figures -> Soloist vs Ensemble, most often in string quartet repertoire, the solo lines are given to the cello(though I don't know why it is the cello that most often gets the solo line in string quartet repertoire and not say the viola(which I think of as an Alto violin whenever I write for it) or the violin, is it the range that makes cello solos so popular amongst all string instrument solos?)
  • First Duet against second Duet -> Like the Andante of Beethoven's Fourth Piano concerto, different ideas that don't come together until later
  • Duet playing over accompaniment -> Very much like the Brahms Double Concerto
  • Equal partners, but coming at different times, starting on different notes, and in different octaves -> Fugato, soloists and orchestra are equals or it is only the orchestra, doesn't matter, tension builds up regardless

As you can see, there are many analogies possible to make between the string quartet and the concerto. Likewise, there are just as many possible analogies between the string quartet and the piano sonata. It really is a beast of its own, with the dynamic, pitch, and articulation range of a piano(the extra octave is a lower octave for the piano and a higher octave for the strings), but with the homogeneity yet easily contrasting sonority, like that of the orchestra. I have had trouble writing a string quartet in the past, despite score reading and listening to a lot of string quartets before writing my own, with the most frequent string quartets I listened to being those composed by Mozart, which I would often listen to in compositional order, i.e. listening to Mozart's first string quartet first, his "Dissonance" quartet nineteenth and so on.

I wonder if that is because I was thinking to much along the lines of piano sonata scoring + adaptation for strings. Because in the past, I have seen the piano sonata and the string quartet as being quite similar in that:

  1. Instrumentation stays the same throughout
  2. A lot of contrast is made between and within movements. For example listen to the first and final movements of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Lots of contrast within each movement. But you probably also notice quite a bit of contrast between the 2 movements. To my ears, they both sound joyful, but like different kinds of joy, with the first movement having a more celebratory or triumphant joy and the fourth movement having a joy that is more like that of a child skipping around.
  3. Similar number of melodic lines. In the piano sonata, 1 or 2 of these are often hidden within the harmony and don't sound like melodies in their own right. In the string quartet, everything sounds like a melody, even the bass line.

Would thinking along the lines of concerto scoring instead of sonata scoring help me get past the hardest part so far of writing a string quartet, writing the second theme? Granted, I have never written a concerto, but I have listened to several including perhaps the most complex concerto I have ever heard, Beethoven's Triple Concerto for piano, violin, and cello, thinking about how the soloist and orchestra relate as well as relations between soloists as the piece progresses.

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I the most important issue when writing for "classical" (not contemporary) string quartett is to write each line separatedly. Each voice must stand on its own. forget the chordal treatment.

In some spots, you can write a solo and the remaining instruments play in background, but that's not the idea of small ensembles like this. In other workds, the wiring must be based on counterpoint. In that sense, some techniques that work with the orchestra, won't work in the quartett.

Also, we must take care of writing in pairs (a duet.. and the other two, what?).

Steer clear of unison passages, particularly for the two violins.

 

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I absolutely love writing for string quartet -probably due to the fact I play viola (?)

That said, there's a few things to consider:

1. Strings possess similar timbre and sound. Each string also has it's own unique qualities. On the viola, for instance, the A string (the smallest) possesses a more nasal tone quality. That doesn't mean it can't sing as well as the E string on the violin. Cello's have a very resonant sound throughout much of their range -thus, they can cut through to be fully audible through even the busiest string textures. 

2. Writing for string quartet, it's important to remember that each part while -as Luis pointed out- maintaining and independent character ALSO work together in a more conversational manner. This nature of string quartet writing can be found throughout the repertoire from the earliest to the most modern. So, yes, you want each part to be independent to some degree -but you also have to unify the parts into a cohesive whole. (Not that 4 competing parts wouldn't be an interesting premise -if done in a way that presents itself cohesively). 

3. Strings when playing unison provide a strong effect -and should be used when needed. To get an idea of it, listen to the opening of Beethoven's Grosses Fugue (originally part of the Opus 131 quartet). In the opening, Beethoven presents the melodic notes of the fugue in full unison. The effect is powerful.

4. Do cross voices. While, traditionally, one is taught to preserve the SATB nature of quartet writing by NOT crossing voices, within string literature, it is customary and expected for the strings to cross voices -particularly for quartets. Again, each line 'converses' with one another -adding it's own two cents within your textures. This can be achieved without crossing -but... you'd be missing out on exploiting the full range of the strings.

5. Don't neglect the inner voices. While 2nd violin and viola -especially in the early days of the form- are customarily given accompaniment material, they also add unique qualities to the quartet. Don't forget to give them decent material to play. Trust me, from a violists point of view, the instrument can do much more than provide harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment. 

6. A String Quartet is not a concerto. While you may be writing a string quartet for 4 'divas', those divas do come together much more intimately. It's chamber music, after all. And this gets me to my last comment regarding the form:

String Quartets often provide a fuller glimpse into both the talent and the personality of the composer -even in the modern era. From Mozart (who transcribed Constanza's labor pains into one quartet) to Shostakovich (who grappled heavily with state suppression of his modernist tendencies), the catalogue is replete with countless examples of this. String Quartets provide a composer with 4 instruments that possess similar timbre -that means you can't fake it with orchestration. Your music HAS to be on point. Your form, structure, and motivic material lay raw and bare. There has to be substance -or else the entire work will flop. 

I don't mean to make the form sound so lofty -but that is the reality of the beast (whether we like to admit it or not). Many composers gave the form the best compositional prowess they had to offer. It's no wonder that a lot of modernists, especially in the early days, composed very few string quartet works for this very reason. It's a difficult ensemble to compose for. You can't just hide behind instrumentational coloring. You actually have to compose. *gasp*

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One of the greatest examples of this kind of thing was done by Schoenberg; you may not like the sound, but it's one of the quartets theorists and composers keep coming back to:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L85XTLr5eBE

Another personal recommendation for the blend of styles is Prokofiev 1. Lots of moving parts at all times. The middle section of the 1st movement is terrific.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3TRIQP7WNkc

 

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On 2/26/2020 at 7:23 AM, jawoodruff said:

It's no wonder that a lot of modernists, especially in the early days, composed very few string quartet works for this very reason. It's a difficult ensemble to compose for. You can't just hide behind instrumentational coloring. You actually have to compose. *gasp*

I got banned from another forum for arguing with a guy that modernism/modernity is garbage and lowered standards dramatically. We're at a point where many composers can't compose a coherent melody or without ostinato at all, couldn't do it without samples, etc and yet these people can wind up in big gigs for film and such. All because of the pursuit of "originality" and eventually this "everything is totally subjective" relativism that inevitably arises from this mindset. 

I think this mentality is the most poisonous thing there is to learning any sort of craft and you see it everywhere now. Taken to its logical conclusion, one is to believe that someone who just sat down for the first time at a piano and banged out a short tune, not knowing what they're really doing, is in fact just as good of a composer, churning out just as good of music as Mozart because "muh subjectivity". I mean these guys literally tried to convince me that these two guys banging sticks together and mumbling is no worse than John Williams because "culture" and "communication" and other terms of obscurantism. 

No one who takes their craft seriously has this mentality, which really only exists to tear down standards so that we won't fear being judged as inferior to something else — and there's just nothing of value to be learned there except not to take advice from such people.

Anyway, that's my rant that was inspired by this part of your post.

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15 hours ago, AngelCityOutlaw said:

I got banned from another forum for arguing with a guy that modernism/modernity is garbage and lowered standards dramatically. We're at a point where many composers can't compose a coherent melody or without ostinato at all, couldn't do it without samples, etc and yet these people can wind up in big gigs for film and such. All because of the pursuit of "originality" and eventually this "everything is totally subjective" relativism that inevitably arises from this mindset. 

I think this mentality is the most poisonous thing there is to learning any sort of craft and you see it everywhere now. Taken to its logical conclusion, one is to believe that someone who just sat down for the first time at a piano and banged out a short tune, not knowing what they're really doing, is in fact just as good of a composer, churning out just as good of music as Mozart because "muh subjectivity". I mean these guys literally tried to convince me that these two guys banging sticks together and mumbling is no worse than John Williams because "culture" and "communication" and other terms of obscurantism. 

No one who takes their craft seriously has this mentality, which really only exists to tear down standards so that we won't fear being judged as inferior to something else — and there's just nothing of value to be learned there except not to take advice from such people.

Anyway, that's my rant that was inspired by this part of your post.

 

Sorry to hear that you got banned from another forum. 

In terms of the content of your post, I do agree with you. There is a mindset within the community that encourages a rather broad definition to subjectivity. Composition, like any art, is one that requires considerable time spent in learning. While some do have innate talent -even then, it has to be developed and refined. Originality and developing an original voice in your compositions, on the contrary, is an important aspect of our art -and one that has been fostered for hundreds of years. That said, originality doesn't mean the work can't be creative and artistic in nature. 

I take my compositional ability very seriously. I may use a more modern sonic pallet and technique, but I also observe the past as somewhere I came from (if that makes any sense). Whether I use common tertian harmony or serialism doesn't mean that one work is less well crafted then the other. It's the content and development of the work that matter -not the language you speak in. This is true of spoken word, written texts, and music. If one is not coherent in conveying their ideas -then, truly, will anyone even listen? 

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On 3/15/2020 at 9:46 PM, jawoodruff said:

Sorry to hear that you got banned from another forum. 

In terms of the content of your post, I do agree with you. There is a mindset within the community that encourages a rather broad definition to subjectivity. Composition, like any art, is one that requires considerable time spent in learning. While some do have innate talent -even then, it has to be developed and refined. Originality and developing an original voice in your compositions, on the contrary, is an important aspect of our art -and one that has been fostered for hundreds of years. That said, originality doesn't mean the work can't be creative and artistic in nature. 

I take my compositional ability very seriously. I may use a more modern sonic pallet and technique, but I also observe the past as somewhere I came from (if that makes any sense). Whether I use common tertian harmony or serialism doesn't mean that one work is less well crafted then the other. It's the content and development of the work that matter -not the language you speak in. This is true of spoken word, written texts, and music. If one is not coherent in conveying their ideas -then, truly, will anyone even listen? 

 

 

PREACH!!!!!

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On 2/26/2020 at 9:32 AM, Luis Hernández said:

I find it harder to write for string quartet than for orchestra.

 

Chamber music period is hard to write for.  It exposes you, good and bad.  If you don't have a good pen, your chamber music will suffer!

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1 hour ago, maestrowick said:

Chamber music period is hard to write for.  It exposes you, good and bad.  If you don't have a good pen, your chamber music will suffer!

 

So true. 

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On 3/15/2020 at 6:46 PM, jawoodruff said:

Originality and developing an original voice in your compositions, on the contrary, is an important aspect of our art -and one that has been fostered for hundreds of years.

Well what I mean by "originality" is not the "signature" so to speak, that basically every composer will develop if they aren't consciously trying to reproduce another's.

What I mean is the pursuit of originality as modernists saw it. This idea of something which is so totally detached from what came before it or some sort of technique that creates a "new method" of composing or creating art.

By and large, most such attempts have failed to produce results on par with the traditions and techniques developed and nurtured over the centuries before them.

 

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10 hours ago, AngelCityOutlaw said:

Well what I mean by "originality" is not the "signature" so to speak, that basically every composer will develop if they aren't consciously trying to reproduce another's.

What I mean is the pursuit of originality as modernists saw it. This idea of something which is so totally detached from what came before it or some sort of technique that creates a "new method" of composing or creating art.

By and large, most such attempts have failed to produce results on par with the traditions and techniques developed and nurtured over the centuries before them.

 

 

I wouldn't quite say the emphasis on the avant garde hasn't produced any results that have added to composition. I can think of a number of innovations that came about from the last 100 years. From the added timbres in the composer's pallet produced via extended technique and prepared instrumentation to a widening of the harmonic pallet, there were many contributions added. In a way, the emphasis on the avant garde brings the concept of composition into much fuller focus. I know, via my own compositional development, abandoning traditional harmony and openly experimenting with the various tools of modernity had a strong impact on my ability to compose. Let me explain this further:

1. When you abandon tonality and it's long established harmonic relationships and structures, you are left with no "template" for composition. Large scale (and small scale forms), for instance, have established harmonic patterns that assist the composer in directing the music from point A to point B (Sonata-Allegro form, for example, establishes the tonic... transitions to the dominant... then navigates thru various keys... before returning to the dominant... which resolves to the tonic). Abandoning tonality makes this established harmonic structure moot. Thus, you have to devote attention to other compositional techniques to develop your material.

2. The basic material of composition is drawn into question. With the abandonment of tonality, you are stuck with a chief organizational background for designing and constructing melodic material. The design of periods, phrases, and full musical sentences takes on a more profound -and I'd argue organic- nature without established tonal structure. This means you absolutely can not fake it to make it. Your material has to be on point. It has to have the potential to both keep the listener's interest and lend itself to a variety of developmental techniques. 

3. In keeping with above, the ideas of what constitutes basic material are drawn sharply into question. Do you focus on intervallic sequences? Do you place a stronger emphasis on motifs and motivic devices? Do you seek out and utilize other harmonic systems such as quartal and septal harmony?

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Obviously, there's a lot more that comes into question. One other caveat: even keeping established tonality central to your music doesn't necessarily mean that you can't explore any of the above. The goal of all of this is to move away from templates and actually take the art seriously. Compose. Explore. Experience. 

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