The Arditti Quartet is the avatar of an ensemble for new music. It is indefatigable: Formed in 1974, its repertoire now counts over 1,000 quartets of this and the last century, with vast numbers composed specifically for them. Reading new music as if it were a newspaper, they play with a finesse, erudition and passion that is breathtaking. This year, like all others, their Wien Modern concert was highlighted in red in my schedule.
Clara Iannotta’s dead wasps in the jam-jar (iii) (2017/18) was a miniature replication of her festival opening piece: a carpet of quiet sounds. As Iannotta herself admitted at the post-concert “meet the composer” reception, her titles don’t have much to do with the works themselves. She was actually inspired here by those ocean depths where no light penetrates – infinitesimal yet perpetual changes in near-silent non-movement. Yes, that is what the piece was about.
Wien Modern “on the high seas”
I came precariously close to falling asleep during Horizont auf hoher See (2016/17) by Younghi Pagh-Paan, a Korean composer living in Germany and Italy. Her intense language of seemingly arbitrary tones from wildly independent voices ‒ loud and soft, fast and slow, up and down ‒ just tired me out. Until suddenly at the end, a pentatonic melody emerged out of nowhere, like a rainbow. Beautiful.
Surprisingly, the audience stayed awake during Austrian Klaus Lang’s seven views of white (2013), a long quartet (43 minutes) of slow, super-soft pianissimo notes, the only connecting feature an intermittent hesitant, climbing scale. According to Lang, the piece is a philosophical contemplation on time: I am not sure if the message really got across.
The most interesting work of the evening was the oldest: Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet, written in 1931. Yes, the name is familiar: she was the step-mother of Pete Seeger and mother of Peggy Seeger. In 1930, as a prominent member of a group of American composers known as the “ultramoderns,” she became the first woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. She used it to travel in Europe for a year, seeking out composers working in a vein similar to her own, including Alban Berg and Béla Bartók. But she didn’t find a publisher – she was a woman. After marrying Charles Seeger, she gave up composing and joined her spouse in collecting American folk music (and obviously worked at inspiring her children).
Works by Crawford Seeger were last heard in Vienna in the 1990s. This concert made it again clear to me that they deserve a place in the standard repertoire. When will that happen, I wonder?