The Arditti Quartet
Interview with Irvine Arditti / by Max Nyffeler
How was it that you founded a string quartet devoted entirely to 20th-century music?
It came just after my studies at the Royal College of Music. We were asked to do a concert with Penderecki. He was invited to receive an honorary degree from the institution, and we began to work on his Second String Quartet. He was in London, so he came and rehearsed with us. This set a working style we've kept up ever since: to prepare a new piece in the presence of the composer, giving him a chance to take part in its interpretation. That was our very first concert. Also, I'd heard the LaSalle Quartet and European quartets playing new music. All this intrigued me to found a quartet in England entirely for the purposes of playing new music.
When did you begin to take an interest in contemporary music?
I got these impulses much earlier, when I was a schoolboy, in fact. I wrote music at school, and I went to Darmstadt when I was fifteen and heard music by Stockhausen, Ligeti and the rest. At that time Boulez was also in London conducting new music. And so I became aware of all sorts of European new music which intrigued me. My impulses were really from the so-called avant-garde of the Sixties.
What were the quartet's next steps after its first concert?
The second concert, which came soon after the first, was basically a LaSalle programme. We played Berio's Sincronie, but we also played Lutoslawski's quartet and a Mayazumi prelude, another LaSalle piece. In those days there were not so many quartets to play. In the next few years we became associated with Henze and Ligeti, and we performed and recorded all their quartets - all before the end of the Seventies.
Was the LaSalle Quartet a kind of model for you?
Yes, I think so. I was more intrigued by this quartet than by the others for their interest in new music and the Second Viennese School, which I also found very important, obviously. By our third concert, I think, we already played the complete opuses of Anton Webern for string quartet. So right from the beginning we tried to create a historical context for new music within the 20th century. BartÛk was also important. In one of our first tours we played the Bartók Third.
How does the Arditti Quartet approach a new score?
First we study it individually and look at it in the way a conductor might look at a new orchestral score. We mark details in the parts that are essential. So when we come to the first rehearsal we know what the others are supposed to do. We need this awareness for our ensemble playing because in new music you can't just 'rattle it off'. Often you don't know where you are going. So in order to make the experience of rehearsing much quicker, we do this 'pre-preparation'. Then we come together and learn the piece to a certain degree before bringing the composer in. It is always good to have the composer in as early as possible, for if you are going to change something it is better to do it sooner rather than later.
How does this collaboration work? Does the composer always come to the rehearsals, or is there also contact by phone or letter?
It can be any mixture of these things. They can call us, advising us about certain points. They can write letters, which is more usual. But I think it is best when they come personally and are confronted with the sound and can comment on it. If we are working on a piece in a language which is not so common - a piece by Lachenmann, say - it is probably necessary to work with the composer beforehand so that you can understand his notation. But with, shall we say, normally notated pieces we get on with this preparatory work ourselves. And then the composer comes in, probably at the last minute, and we get his impressions on what we are doing. Sometimes he is absolutely fine with it, sometimes he has got small comments, sometimes he wants a huge amount of changes. Some composers are very practically minded: they are performers themselves and they know exactly how their music should go, so they can give us detailed advice. This doesn't mean you have to play exactly as they want. But you keep the advice in your memory. Sometimes the opposite happens and composers are reluctant to speak. They will just correct some small details that only a fifth pair of ears can hear. But otherwise they want us to interpret the piece in our own way, not theirs.
Do composers sometimes change their notation after hearing your rehearsal?
Not so much the notation, but they sometimes change the timing of their music. They tend to put things closer together or further apart. Often it is difficult to compose the time element of a piece. If the music is very rhythmic there's no big problem, but there is if you have silences integrated into the music. And then they often make adjustments, sometimes small, sometimes quite large. We are used to that; we're used to adapting.
Would you say that what happens between a composer and the ensemble in rehearsal is just as important as the process within the ensemble itself?
Yes, I think so. And that is one of the invaluable things about playing new music. It's something you can't get from old music.
You have played hundreds of world premières. What is special about an ensemble specializing in premières?
We are confronted with having to produce an authoritative performance of a piece for the first time. We often play at festivals, and festivals are geared to premières. But we are geared to second, third, fourth ... twentieth performances. Festivals have big publics, as we can see in Germany. At Witten, Donaueschingen and so forth they record the premières for radio and then turn out a CD. Normally string quartets play classical music, and when they play a new piece they try it out in a small place with a semi-private audience. But with us it is different. From the very beginning the concerts we gave in London - with Ligeti, with Henze - were broadcast live on the BBC. And this has happened throughout our career. Which means we've learnt very quickly to assess music and to try to do something with it. Because it is not good enough to say, 'Sorry, this is our first go at it', or 'We've only had this piece for one week'. Such excuses won't hold. People expect a finished product from us. So this is one big difference compared to classical groups, a very big difference. All the new music ensembles know this problem - Ensemble Modern, InterContemporain, London Sinfonietta. But we are still very different, in a way, because we are a more homogeneous group, a string quartet, and we have nobody outside directing us, nobody to take the responsibility of listening quickly to rehearsals and saying, 'This is right, this is wrong, this or that would sound better'. We have to decide, we have sole responsibility. So in a way, to cover the sort of repertoire we do is quite crazy. It is an immense volume of work.
What do you consider a good piece, or rather, what kind of quartet music are you looking for?
Well, the Arditti Quartet is often pigeonholed into playing music that is technically very demanding, scores that are so complex that other people can't or don't want to spend the time learning them. But I would like to think that we now play a much broader repertoire. And although we are able to play this complex music in whatever form it takes, we are also able to play other sorts of music, too. There are many different kinds of music that interest us, and I think the main criterion is whether the piece is a good one or not.
What do you mean by 'good'?
Yes, what is a good piece? A piece that stimulates the listeners for the time it occupies. Maybe that is a good description.
But of course you, the Quartet, are the first listeners, or readers.
Yes, but it is very dangerous in the very beginning to analyse what will make an impression. Because one's opinion changes, especially when you are involved in the working process. When you are playing in a piece, you listen to your part more intently than anybody else's. Of course I have an idea of what the piece is, but I always have a better impression of music when I listen from the outside, when I listen afterwards to tapes, recordings, CDs, whatever. Building up an interpretation is a long process. When you first begin rehearsing a piece step by step you may not really understand what the piece is about. So we have learnt from many years of experience to let a piece be with us for some time before we make judgements about its quality. Audiences in different countries are really very different, so I like to give a piece time: time to be heard, time to grow. The interpretation has to grow, too, and so does the readiness of listeners to tackle new things. And so we confront people with them. Confrontation is what new music is all about: the idea that each new piece brings something else, some new idea which can stimulate the listener. And for me, that is the interesting thing about the concept of new music.
How does a work change for you when you play it over a long period?
In contemporary music there is a great amount of detail which can be difficult to absorb in an initial rehearsal period. So after a period of time you get a sense of space for the material - how it sounds, how it falls into the pattern of the piece's time span. This requires experience, it needs development and continual trying. That is for me the main reason why contemporary music is never boring. It is a constant process of 'what are we doing with this piece now, where can we go from here, have we reached a point where we can't go any further?' Even a piece like Ligeti's Second Quartet, which we have played since the late seventies and which we must have played hundreds of times - I haven't counted - and which we recorded twice: I have never been bored with playing this piece in concert. Never. Because we are constantly going somewhere, we are constantly trying to do something with that word 'interpretation' (if we take it seriously).
Have you ever said to yourself after the first performance of a new piece: 'That wasn't it, that went wrong'?
But you won't tell us which piece?
Of course not. There are always pieces which you don't get at first. You can get them together to some degree, but they are so demanding. There is a long way to go before you are really satisfied with the piece. And often the reasons can be technical or musical.
Beethoven once said to the leader of the famous Schuppanzigh Quartet who complained about the extreme difficulties of his part: 'Do you suppose I think of your wretched fiddle when the spirit moves me?' Have you had similar experiences? Have pieces been written for you which went beyond your technical abilities?
I made a comment some years ago which has become quite well known, but not as famous as Beethoven's: 'Nothing is impossible if you spend enough time working it out.' The piece I was referring to was the Second String Quartet of Brian Ferneyhough. This was our first confrontation with something that was very, very complicated. We couldn't put it on our music stands and play it immediately. We worked on that not bar by bar, but beat by beat, and I think in those days, in 1980, we spent about sixty hours learning the piece. It was some 12 minutes long. But there is nothing that cannot be played, unless it is written badly.
Was that the most complex music you have ever played?
I think the three quartets Ferneyhough wrote for us - numbers two, three and four - reached a peak in this sort of rhythmic complexity. Of course there are different sorts of complexity. Xenakis is complex in a completely different way, also the music of Elliott Carter, even if it is perhaps more classically orientated. Many different sorts of music can be labelled 'complex music'. We became known for playing this sort of music. But the situation is quite different today. There are more players able and willing to play contemporary music. Perhaps now the diversity of contemporary music is more extreme. There are many more different sorts of styles that classical players can access quite easily, without having to play the most complex things.
You said everything that is written can be played. Does this mean that the string quartet or the string instruments themselves have been thoroughly explored, that there are no more new things to discover technically?
I don't know the answer. This is a question that people always ask me: 'Are there no new things left to discover?' or 'What sort of music are people going to write in the year 2000?' I don't know the answers to the future. I could not have predicted what is happening today when we began 25 years ago. Back then there were a few different styles spiralling in one direction. Now it is like a fireworks display: everybody is going in all directions - forward, sideways, backwards.
But there was a period in the Sixties when notation and the means of producing sounds took a huge step forward. This, for the moment, seems to be finished.
Just to extend techniques doesn't always make good music. I think we need to be able to play all sorts of things, and we shouldn't exclude things just because they don't place extreme demands on us. You can make music with very simple means, and you can make music with very complex means. And so the language becomes more expanded. What is interesting about today is that we have this diversity and people are open to listening to all sorts of music.
In the classical and romantic periods there was an accepted style and different kinds of individual idioms within that style. Today we lack this universality. Almost every composer has his own style and technique.
Yes, this is the only time in history that this has been the case. Some 20th-century methods of composition tried to go along certain paths, and it seems they failed. What is fantastic about today is that there is no one or two ways to go. (Deutsche Version) Not that the serial and post-serial phases didn't produce a lot of very good pieces; that is the music that really intrigued me when I began to listen to new music. But what was wrong about it was that, for them, it was the only way to go. Now things are more interesting in that they are completely open, and people do not have to restrain their imagination. For how can you restrain imagination?
Do you, as a performer, have an overview of this large field of possibilities?
I don't think that is important. It is not our job to see overviews. That is your job. That is why we are different. And I think that difference is important. Our job is to inspire composers and audiences with inventive interpretations, to encourage them to use their imagination and to do what they want to do. Not to compress them and tell them what they should do or put them in pigeonholes. Interpretation is not a one-way street, and there is no one way for a group to play music. One can change one's concept of music. The whole idea of all contemporary music is to do just that. I think composers are constantly resourceful and constantly surprising. Sometimes I become 'conditioned' in my listening and I am not receptive to all the new ideas. Then I think of people of my age when I was 20 years younger, saying: 'Oh, why don't they understand that, why can't they like this?' In our job we have to be super-receptive to all sorts of things.
Have there been any fundamental changes over the last 25 years in the way the quartet goes about its work?
My interest was always geared to expansion, so I think our principles haven't changed at all. We have always been open to new things. It is just that everything has expanded so much in so many directions that we've had to be more and more receptive. So our vision of new music has expanded, too, because we have things today which you couldn't have imagined 25 years ago. And it is a fact that you can't single out any one thing as being all-important. We have never been associated just with one composer or with one school of composition. There are many facets, and the most important aspect is: it is ongoing. Now we've been awarded the Siemens Prize, which is a prize for lifetime achievement, I'm told. I'm very pleased about that, but I'd like to say to them: Hang on a minute, I haven't finished yet!
The string quartet is perhaps the most 'European' of all genres, born in the Viennese classical period. You play string quartets all over the world, written by composers from very different countries. Is the string quartet still a genuinely European kind of music? Or has it become international?
I think it is international. Its origins come from Europe, of course, and maybe Europe has more possibilities to extend the quartet. But to say that it is a European genre would be nonsense now, for the composers come from many different places. One has to understand the tradition, this is very important. What we try to do is to continue a tradition of writing. Even though we don't play Schubert there is an awareness of Schubert's string quartets, of late Beethoven, of BartÛk and the Second Viennese School. These things are very important in the evolution of the string quartet. And it is perhaps with this thought in mind that we look for the composers we choose to play. That is not to suggest that they should write string quartets like the great masters. But they should be aware of the past. We as a group have also been aware of the past. We don't approach people who have never heard this music before, composers from other fields like jazz, pop or crossover cultures. This is something which doesn't interest me at all.
Do you like teaching as a quartet?
Well, teaching implies several different sorts of things: teaching performers to play new music, teaching composers how to write things down. Performers can listen to and learn from what we do, like I did with the LaSalle. But I rather feel that our job is aimed at composers. It is very important for young composers to hear what they have written, to hear it played quite properly and accurately, so they can assess and improve their music. This is something we did for many years in Darmstadt in the Summer Courses. You know, just playing on the international stages is quite easy. People want the best pieces, we have to find the masterpieces. But Darmstadt was a place of tremendous communication between young people from all over the world who all had different ideas. They listened, and they liked or didn't like, they understood or they didn't understand. But one could access all these people, one could give young composers a chance to have their music performed to large audiences. This was a very important part of our work.
What would be your ideal teaching situation if you had a continuous place to work?
I think the students should feed off us, treating us like insects in a glass cage to find out how we do things. And from a performing standpoint, it would be quite interesting to work with younger groups and coach them and try to instruct them on how we tackle the learning of new music. Then we would need young composers writing new music so that everyone could be involved in a common process. We do this sometimes, but only in a guest capacity.
Are there any young string quartets following your example and playing contemporary music?
Yes, things are moving. This is something we actively encourage. In the first years there were hardly any other groups younger than us taking up what we did. But now there are quite a lot of classical string quartets playing some pieces from our repertoire. I am very pleased to say this. Maybe we have made a serious imprint in the musical world of quartets. Of course I often quote the statement that Boulez made, I think, in the Seventies: 'The string quartet is dead.' Later he rescinded this comment. And I like to think that was largely because we have inspired so many composers to write for the string quartet.
Looking back at these 25 years, what do you think is the most important thing you have learnt?
We have learnt to use our imagination. We've learnt to go to places which are uncharted and which have no textbooks to teach you how to do things. To play a piece for the first time to a big audience, with all the microphones and imponderables, and to know that the initiative has come from you: that, I think, is the very special thing about new music. You have all the techniques at your fingers, of course. Everything is there. But at the end of the day you have to use your imagination. And the drift of your imagination comes from the scores.
You are an English-based ensemble, but it seems that you mostly play abroad.
Well, it is nice to live in London, and it is nice not to mix business with pleasure. So I can live here very happily. Unfortunately the living is disturbed by the rehearsing. So actually we do play much more in England than anywhere else because we rehearse everything here. But England has had its ups and downs for us over the years, and it is not true to say that we never play in England. The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has supported us with the fervour of a European festival, and I am happy to say that we are going back again this year for our 25th anniversary. It is not so easy for us in London. There have been few figures who've really put their weight behind us. When the Almeida Festival existed we were a regular feature, but that was years ago. Maybe with the coming of new people to organize things, maybe not English people, we can hope for some changes and the same sort of interest as in other parts of Europe. Maybe it's a problem with the English, I don't know. What did Sir Thomas Beecham say? 'The English don't actually like music, but they absolutely adore the noise it makes.'
Could the reason be that you don't have many English composers in your repertoire?
I think this was true in the earlier history of the Arditti Quartet, but it is not true any more. Well, we play pieces by Ferneyhough, though perhaps he is not really considered English in the standard sense, and he has always lived in exile. But we do play quite a substantial amount of other composers. Birtwistle wrote us an important piece a few years ago, and we regularly play the music of James Dillon, Jonathan Harvey, and more recently Tom Adès. And there'll be other English composers. It is not for want of encouraging English composers to write music for the Arditti Quartet, so the problem is elsewhere.
© 1999 Max Nyffeler
This interview was commissioned by the Ernst von Siemens Stiftung and conducted in London on 5 April 1999.