A Psychedelic Trip and a Blank Canvas

Merlijn Kerkhof

What do composers Henri Dutilleux and Philip Glass have in common? Listen to their oeuvre and you’re inclined to think: little. So little that you could begin to wonder how often these icons of 20th Century classical music have ever been mentioned in the same sentence. It’s hard to find two composers whose musical languages are further apart from each other.

    Glass is the American who is widely loved and whose music is deeply rooted in repeating and shifting rhythmic patterns. His pieces are heard everywhere —in films, in theaters, at festivals. Alternatively, the interwoven sound structure of Dutilleux (1916-2013), at the same time so original, and in his search for new colors, is so typically French. Where Glass is regarded as extremely accessible, Dutilleux is considered intellectually ‘challenging’ —his music is for an audience of connaisseurs.

    Nevertheless one finds the music of these two gentlemen on each side of one lp, in which Glass and Dutilleux are literally opposite poles. The Alma Quartet couples Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit... (Thus the Night..., 1976) with Glass’s Second String Quartet Company (1983).

 

This provocative combination— highbrow and inviting— is typical for the young ensemble, which strives to do everything slightly different. When playing in the Kleine Zaal of the posh Royal Concertgebouw, they appear neatly dressed in suits, albeit in sneakers instead of lacquered shoes. The musicians, of which three are members of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (cellist Nitzan Laster is a member of that other beautiful orchestra of Amsterdam, The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra), perform the great quartet repertoire, but also share the stage with renowned producers such as Henrik Schwarz or the experimental pianist Hauschka, with whom they received a standing ovation in a packed Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg.

    One can find this foursome outside the conventional concert halls as well: the Almas are always prepared to give a classical injection in places where you wouldn’t expect violins. For example, the quartet brought the jazzy music of Erwin Schulhoff, labeled as ‘Entartet’ by the Nazis, back to the nightclubs. It was Schulhoff who was given the focus of their jubilantly received debut album in the late summer of 2016.

One and a half years later the Alma Quartet sits around the table of first violinist Marc Daniel van Biemen’s Amsterdam apartment. This is the place where it all happens. Although everyone has a job in a prestigious orchestra, they rehearse at least three days a week in this room. Make no mistake: this quartet is not ‘just a side project’. Van Biemen: “Our rehearsals are intensive sessions of three hours in a row. We take no more than five minutes for a water break and then we continue.”

    “The orchestra is beautiful, but in the quartet we find more artistic satisfaction because we can decide for ourselves what we do”, explains cellist Nitzan Laster. Violist Jeroen Woudstra adds: “Do you also feel that you are sometimes too alert when returning to the orchestra, after working with the quartet for a while? When you enter just a little too quick with respect to your colleagues?” Everyone chuckles. Very recognizable.

Yet they all praise the combination of playing in an orchestra and the quartet. Does the Alma Quartet also take anything from the famous, warm sound of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra? Van Biemen thinks so. “You want to emulate that sound on a smaller scale. And the inspiration you get from working with top musicians and good conductors, is something that will always stay with you.” Second violinist Benjamin Peled: “Because we also know the orchestral works of the same composers we perform with the quartet, we have a much more complete picture. It makes it easier to find the orchestral colors within the quartet.”

Dutilleux, who passed away in 2013, is a composer who appears in the DNA of the orchestra. Still, studying Ainsi la nuit... in the words of Jeroen Woudstra felt like “being thrown into the deep without having had swimming lessons.” Marc Daniel van Biemen: “But it has also proved to be a formative piece for us. We have been working on it intensively for two and a half years. Precisely because the idiom is so unique, you have to make good agreements quickly and effectively; we have also benefited from this in other pieces.” Initially he found it a difficult piece to listen to, he admits. “But now I’m completely in love with it and I want to share it with everyone. I see it as a musical fairy tale. In other pieces I often have favorite moments, but in this quartet, Dutilleux’s only, everything from the first to the last note is closely unified.”

    Jeroen Woudstra: “It is almost psychedelic. In a sense, the piece has the effect of a mind-expanding drug. It is not like a classical composition where you have a theme that is developed. It consists of illusions of amorphous musical sculptures. Eventually you feel that there is a very clear compositional arch.”

Where Dutilleux’s string quartet is labyrinthine in nature, that of Glass is rather atmospheric. The quartet is an adaptation of music that he composed for a theatrical performance of the monologue Company by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), a treatise on consciousness and reality. In Glass’s music life seems to be put ‘on hold’. The Alma Quartet played it for the composer when he visited The Netherlands in 2017. An experience that the quartet holds very dear. Marc Daniel van Biemen: “We said we’d like to play for you. To which he replied: ‘I don’t like telling the musicians how to play, otherwise I don’t learn anything.’” Benjamin Peled: “Where Dutilleux gives you a lot of information, Glass gives you little guidance. A score of his is like a blank canvas. As a musician you have to make a lot of your own decisions. Eventually Glass did give some feedback, but most of all his support. That felt very good. He was so disarmingly sympathetic, so paternal.”

    Jeroen Woudstra: “I find it fascinating how two works within the same genre, conceived so close in time to one another, can be so different. If these pieces do have something in common, it’s about sound. But the ideas behind it are incompatible.”

(Click on the images to listen to the album on Spotify)

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