david horne

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Flight from the Labyrinth

(String Quartet no. 3)



first performance: July 22, 2004

venue: Spanish Courtyard, Katonah, New York

performer(s): Daedalus Quartet

scoring: vn1.vn2.va.vc

click here for pdf of score (pages 1-7)- will open in new window

click here for pdf of score (pages 25-29)- will open in new window

programme note:

Although I write essentially abstract music, I often start out with a particular extra-musical idea that might suggest a musical theme or structure. Flight from the Labyrinth takes as its inspiration the myth of Daedalus and his escape, along with his infamous son Icarus, from the Labyrinth on Crete. However, the string quartet is not programmatic in any formal way; indeed the eventual fate of Icarus is purposely not dealt with at all. Instead, contrasting ideas of a maze and imprisonment, juxtaposed with flight and escape are stylised into particular musical elements that reverberate throughout the work. The ‘conflict’ of these musical ideas is apparent from the opening. Tense and oppressive clusters of notes, around which the instruments swirl aggressively are contrasted with a tranquil major second drone in cello harmonics. This foreshadows much of the musical argument in the piece, where there are almost always two similar ideas competing simultaneously throughout the work’s tightly packed structure.

The string quartet amplifies these contrasts through using a large variety of colours, and certain extended playing techniques, such as bowing behind the bridge and tapping on the instrument. In addition, there is significant use of both natural and artificial harmonics, even plucked harmonics, which are used not just for colour but for their unique expressive qualities. There is also a conscious contrast between employing the natural characteristics of the instruments and then subverting them. For example, there is much use of open strings in certain virtuosic multiple-stop passages to give added resonance and brightness, compared with writing passages unnaturally high on particular strings to create more tension. In addition, the string quartet’s range is sometimes treated in a contrary fashion so, for example, the cello is often playing the highest notes in a texture with the violins below. This also helps to create an aural tension in the string quartet’s sound world.

The idea of escape and flight is depicted by themes that want to reach upwards and outwards, and they are typically more expansive than the labyrinthine ideas which are usually densely packed with interlocking musical motives. While there are moments of repose in the piece, the music is almost always set on edge with a nervous energy that doesn’t begin to fizzle out until the very end. Rather than hearing the piece’s structure as a gradual move towards escape and flight, it might be more useful for the listener to imagine that this is a series a stops and starts. That is, whenever a musical theme seems about to become airborne, it is often violently constrained by the cluster idea heard at the outset. In addition, the relationship between the ideas of constraint and flight become increasingly blurred, as musical ideas from one element seep into another. However, the contrast between the two moods should be apparent to the listener, and this friction creates much of the musical tension. As the extremely vigorous energy that permeated so much of the work eventually dies down, there is an almost resigned quality to the chords heard near the end, finishing with one last whimsical gesture. Whether or not there is an eventual ‘escape’ in the piece is for the listener to decide! .

David Horne,
Manchester, June 2005

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