Commissioned by Aurora Orchestra and Poet in the City supported by Bio Nano Consulting for the dissemination of PETMEM (piezoelectronic Transduction Memory Device), an EU Horizon 2020-funded project exploring low-voltage memory technologies

Instrumentation: String Quintet for 2 violins, viola and 2 cellos
Duration: 25'
First performance of mvt IV: 15 October 2017. Aurora Orchestra Soloists, Wellcome Collection, London.
First complete performance: 12 January 2018. Aurora Orchestra Soloists, King's Place, London.

String Quintet, Emily's Electrical Absence

Among the many fascinating aspects of the PETMEM (Piezoeletric Transduction Memory device) project that frequently arose in conversations between Frances and myself were the strange otherworldly landscapes revealed under the scanning electron microscope, and the piezoresistive effect, where a material under sufficiently high pressure changes state from a resistor to a conductor of electricity.

There are many ways in which the idea of pressure can be translated into music – squeezing material into shorter and shorter timeframes, squashing the pitch space around a given note, increasing the density of activity – and all of these have a role to play throughout my quintet.  Scanning electron microscopy has its parallel in the microtonal landscapes of two of the quintet movements, and the technique of delving inside complex sounds to find hidden harmonic structures.  Memory is the other starting point: memories of other composers, memories of musical material within the quintet, memories of Frances’ poems and her inspiration, Emily Dickinson.

The first movement is a highly energetic dance with a bass line that is squeezed until it breaks off into a sequence of fortissimo hammered triads.  The second movement, following on from Frances’ paired lines in White Box, presents pairs of microtonal harmonies, all in harmonics, held in a floating stasis.  In the third movement, the quintet ‘speaks’ a Dickinson poem, After great pain…, their rhythm and contour taken from an audio analysis of my own voice reading the poem.

In the final movement, a viola melody is surrounded by a filigree tapestry of echoes and fragments and distorting mirrors across a series of compressions until all that remains of the available space is a single trill.  At this point of extreme pressure, the properties of the material suddenly change: bright, gleaming, sudden bursts of sound in a highly microtonal environment. 

All of this is haunted by the ghost of Schubert, above all the incomparable Adagio from his String Quintet in C major.  A memory of this music, perhaps my favourite piece by my favourite composer, increasingly asserts itself on the musical surface until the final passages become as if hypnotised by Schubert’s harmonies, crystallising around them like frost on a fallen leaf.