A Brompton sound diary. 2: Beat Furrer’s 3rd String Quartet (a sort of review)

It sounds on first hearing so unlike stringed instruments. The cracks and pops of fingernails and bowhair catching on catgut are so high, so impossibly crisp, that they must be electronically produced. Then, drawn slowly by the development of the music, the ear accustoms itself and begins to hear the imperfect grain of the sound that tells you yes, after all, these are acoustic instruments in human hands.

The opening of Beat Furrer’s String Quartet No.3 is one of the most immediately arresting I have heard for some time. I suppose a lazy evocation would be Lachenmann – Gran torso, perhaps – but this is a wholly inadequate comparison. For whereas Lachenmann seeks instability in the continual critique of his materials, Furrer is attempting to construct a musical reality ultimately grounded in repetitions and recognitions. So certain features of the initial soundworld soon start recurring, become recognisable and take on identities in their own right. Just as the sounds themselves slowly become familiar, so does their organisation into short repeating cells.

The sleevenotes (beautifully written and coherently translated; not always the case with Kairos discs) speak of narratives of the loss and reconstruction of memory. In a compositional sense the piece tells its story in reverse: Furrer sliced his original sketches into several sections, and reordered them backwards. The process recalls the Christopher Nolan film Memento, in which Guy Pearce is left without a short-term memory and must reconstruct, little by little, the murder of his wife.

Furrer’s ‘plot’ obviously lacks the clarity that is possible in a film, but the basic constructive principle of recreating something previously known from shards and fragments that are in isolation strange and unknown is absolutely key to its audible effect. One is drawn into a compelling process of musical development.

But where is the between the construction of a multi-perspectival view of an event or series of events, and the manipulation of the listener through a single-track understanding of the piece? In a film like Memento, one is led, by the exigencies of the plot, through a series of revelations that tell us something about the humanity of the central characters (and thus ourselves). In the musical analogue, I am not sure whether the revelations can ever be more than reflexive: in our listening can we learn more than just something about the musical construction: ‘oh, that bit came from there, how clever’? If I am told anything about myself it is that, in an unfamiliar world, deriving meaning from the sounds themselves is one thing, but my instincts still value clear signposts and someone to hold my hand. And I’m not sure that’s a realization I’m comfortable with.

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A Brompton sound diary. 1: Window Cough

Monday 5th July 2010

High summer, 9 pm, a fourth floor hospital ward, above the roofs of Sydney Street and Fulham Road. A wet, mucal hack from an adjacent window. Close by, yet far from the streets below, and I with it. Streets that, only now, as I hear that flannely cough echo into the prosceneum space between pavement and trees, seem a world of an entirely different imagination. Down there the sound would be drowned in the white noise of traffic and footsteps, but here, on this window ledge, it is so terribly close. This Victorian building, built for quarantining TB, sounds a carillon of expectorant peals across London.