Cat and Mouse

July 20th, 2013

Thomas Adès’ ‘Catch’ is like no piece of chamber music I’ve ever encountered. The precocious, freakishly gifted composer wrote it when he was only 19-years old, and yet it seems to be the work of a man with about five brains.

Adès has been one of my heroes ever since I realised that being a so-called ‘classical’ musician still meant being able to play pieces that had only been written five-minutes ago (or, indeed, pieces that aren’t even finished yet). So when he came to Australia to not only conduct the orchestra that I play in but also to surreptitiously (well, as surreptitiously as one can being 6’6″) sneak into Syzygy’s recent performance at the Metropolis New Music Festival, I was rendered speechless. And I mean that quite literally. The basic (and, for most humans, subconscious) idea that we communicate through an Arabic alphabet that is chained together to form longer ‘words’ and even eventually ‘sentences’ and ‘paragraphs’ momentarily escaped me when he came up to Jenny and I at work and congratulated us on our performances. Jenny responded with a socially acceptable ‘Thanks so much!’. I think I sort of went ‘Ha! jquatylryd-splat-blllllll’ and drooled a bit down my shirt.

Thankfully I pulled myself together three days later and plucked up the courage to talk to Adès during the post-Metropolis festivities. I wanted to ask him about his quartet ‘Catch’ and tell him how much I admired his own recording of it (apart from being one of the world’s greatest living composers, Adès is also a pretty spiffy pianist). To my surprise and amusement, the first thing he did when I brought up the piece was to apologise! ‘Oh God, it’s such a DIFFICULT piece, I know! I’m so sorry! I was young and trying to be impressive. I would NEVER write a piece like that now. Well, if I did, I’d try to achieve the same effect in an easier way’.

It’s no surprise to hear composers with acquired wisdom talk about the search for simplicity. Composers throughout history, from Beethoven to Bartok to Prokofiev, all sought a more pared-down style as they got older. By no means does this mean that the profundity of their musical message was lessened – if anything, it was heightened because the best composers got better at stripping down their music to the bare essentials so the nugget at the centre can shine through. Their works are all meat with no trimmings.

‘Catch’, in a way, is ALL trimmings. There is no disputing that it is the work of a genius, and the work of someone out to impress. But, frustratingly, it almost doesn’t have a centre. It is like one of those impeccably-structured impressionist paintings by someone like Pissaro – when you examine it closely it’s just a series of tiny brush-strokes, each almost indistinguishable from the other. It only makes sense the further you step away from it. The more you zoom in closer to try and discover EXACTLY what lies at the heart of it, the less information you receive.

I first started crunching my notes to the piece when I was on ‘holidays’ (well, more like a note-learning sabbatical) in London a couple of months ago. The amount of information to absorb off the score is overwhelming. At one stage, over a single note (the lowest B-flat on the piano), Adès writes ‘pianississimo, decrescendo al niente, quasi tremolo’ which would be difficult enough without the fact that, at the correct tempo, the note lasts for less than half-a-second. My favourite glut of instructions is ‘leggierissimo, non dolce, pianississimo e quasi sempre diminuendo, crotchet = 189-202.5′ It seems pedantic, and perhaps it IS, but such specific instructions induce a level of concentration in the performers that they need in order to successfully convey the score’s complex demands.

This is coupled with a texture that is kaleidoscopic and constantly changing, yet always challenging. I remarked to the guys yesterday in rehearsal that one of the most difficult things about ‘Catch’ is that it seems to constantly demand one Very Difficult Thing after another. For four bars you have the complex cross-rhythms and hemiolas of a Ligeti étude; for another four bars there are leaps all over the keyboard that rival Liszt’s ‘Mazeppa’; yet another stretch will overwhelm you with information in the manner of the Ferneyhough new-complexity; other times you just have to subdivide and switch meters with Boulezian precision.

We all inhabited our own private version of hell when learning the notes for this piece, not able to see the bigger picture until we all arrived at the ABC centre for our first rehearsal as a quartet. And, despite the complexity, despite each separate part feeling almost like its own cloud of dust (anybody? no? dust.), when the four of us were finally able to jam it, we discovered that the overwhelming mood of the piece is one of utter playfulness. Like developing a polaroid photo in front of your eyes, the whole gradually come into focus.

‘You and I are actually in octave unisons there’, says Jenny to Michael. ‘Good to know, I’ll watch your cue’.
‘I play on notes 2, 3 and 5 of your quintuplet there, Ash, so as long as you’re utterly rhythmic, I’ll just shadow you’.
‘Oh, thank God you have constant quavers through there, Michael – we can just wrap our septuplets around that!’
‘I’ll lead the downbeat there, even though no-one plays it. Then when you hear Leigh’s bass-note a semi-quaver triplet later you can spring off it’.

Revelation after revelation gradually makes itself known and we all start to revel in the joy of virtuosic chamber music. Well, almost – yesterday, after ten minutes of Jenny and Ashley working out an epic and painstakingly complex series of visual cues in order to make a particular passage work, Ashley suddenly remembered a vital component of the piece, ‘Oh s$%t! I’m meant to be off-stage for that – I won’t be able to see you at all!!’ So, it was back to the drawing board, briefly at least. And there was maybe a cheeky meeting with the MRC the next day to see if we could organise a monitor in the backstage area. The important thing is we’re all still smiling.

Leave a Reply