The Arditti Quartet had assembled
together. The distinguished ensemble were led by a British violinist, an
Australian second violinist, an Irish viola player and a Sri Lankan cellist.
The ensemble was renowned for their virtuosic renditions of post-war chamber
music. This time they had been commissioned to perform a piece by one of the
icons of musical modernism, Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Any piece by Stockhausen waded through
new territory unexcepted avant-gardism was to be expected. Stockhausen
had restlessly been producing pieces which attempted to explore new ideas, new
sonorities and new structures. This had been Stockhausens shtick for over
fifty years. Pierre Boulez his colleague in the fifties had
become a respectable conductor of the whole classical canon. Boulez, once an
irascible avant-gardist, had now become a man of the establishment. Meanwhile,
Stockhausen kept producing new and unusual pieces which both baffled and
fascinated audiences. Whilst Boulez had become deeply connected with society
even receiving large grants from Francois Mitterrands government
Stockhausen had retreated from the world in a manner that seemed
hermetic and even solipsistic. He claimed that he was born on the star
So any piece by Stockhausen would be
unusual and difficult to realise. The first violinist, Irvine Arditti, was
informed via fax and found it surprising and highly comical. They would perform
a Helicopter String Quartet. Each violinist would instal himself in
a helicopter, the helicopter would rise and they would perform the piece.
Stockhausen had effusively told them
that he had a dream about it and it he felt compelled to realise his dream.
Stockhausen often dreamt of musical scores in his head. This time, he dreamed
about a string quartet performed in helicopters and felt that he must make his
peculiar dream come to reality.
The quartet were about to walk out onto
the runway. They had been rehearsing under the supervision of Stockhausen for
months and months. The rehearsals had assiduous and exhausting. They had been
training vocal sounds as well as the highly intricate and complex music.
There are many variables,
said Graeme Jennings, the second violinist. He sported a blue shirt.
Stockhausen decided to make them wear shirts based on the colours that the
score was written in. We are aware of this. There are variables in any
performance, which makes each performance of a piece of music distinctive. The
acoustics of the room, the audience and even the mood of the performers that
day all play a factor. This time, it is an aerial performance the first
aerial performance in history. We will be discombobulated up there in those
I really cannot wait to see my
realised, Stockhausen gushed. He wore a white shirt, a white
sweater and white jeans. This is my first string quartet
tried to avoid all of those outmoded 18th century forms the string
quartet, the symphony, piano concerto, violin concerto, piano sonata, etc. I
have always tried to use unusual arrangements, but this really is not a
traditional string quartet it is performed in helicopters.
In all my time performing in
music, this will probably one of the greatest challenges, Irvine Arditti
said, the first violinist and leader and founder of the Arditti Quartet. He
wore a red shirt. I have performed some tricky pieces
Xenakis, Elliott Carter, Gyorgy Ligeti
Becoming a world-class violinist
in the first place was exceedingly hard. But this time we are performing a
I think that Karlheinz has always
tried to implement real sounds into his music, said Garth Knox, the viola
player. He wore a yellow shirt.
That is correct
through the Second World War
Stockhausen replied. And as I
heard the bombing, the planes, collapsing buildings, the raids
wanted to recreate those sounds in music and in the electronic
Off we go, then, said Rohan
de Saram, the cellist. He wore an orange shirt.
The performers mounted the helicopters
and proceeded to perform their histrionics. The purpose of the music was to
follow the sound of the rotor blades as closely as possible. Once the rotor
blades began to whirr, the instruments started to emulate them. A camera was
placed on the top of the helicopter, which recorded the performing musicians.
It was a tricky operation, as three individuals boarded the helicopter. The
pilot, of course, sat at the front. The musician sat in the middle of the
vehicle. This could be cumbersome, as there wasnt sufficient room to turn
the sheets of the score and it was difficult to move the bow without hammering
the window. The sound engineer was cradled at the back of the helicopter, where
he fiddled with an array of wires and recording equipment.
The helicopters flew close to each
other and zig-zagged each other. The instruments continued to imitate the
sounds of the rotors. The helicopters were still flying high up in the air and
the violins imitated the rotor with frenetic speed. The string players played a
tremolo effect in other words, it created a trembling effect
by rapidly moving the bow back and forth over the same chord. It really did
sound like the rotor.
As they did this, each player shouted,
in a comical and high-pitched voice. The first violinist shouted
Eiiiin, the second violinist shouted Zweiiii, the viola
player shouted Dreiii, and the cellist shouted Vieer.
They had head sets on as they did this.
The helicopters started to attempt to
land. As the rotor blades began to decelerate, the string quartet gradually
slow down and the dynamics softened. The helicopters began to drop as the
strings went quieter and quieter and slower and slower. Once the helicopters
landed, the strings emulated the diminishing rotor blade.
Once the performers disembarked the
vehicles, Stockhausen dashed over to the run-way. Usually taciturn and aloof,
this time he jumped up and down with glee. He hugged the members of the
quartet. Music had become aerial and it had become flex-winged. Months of
rehearsals and preparations had led to this unique and unusual moment
the first aerial performance.