Memory is the subject of this year’s BBC Radio 3 / Wellcome Collection mini festival, “Why Music?”.  I recall as a young violinist that music seemed to embed itself in my fingers so that I never needed to learn to memorise, and never worried that I might forget in performance.  Fast-forward a couple of decades (ok maybe a few decades) and I’m looping the first four bars of one of Kurtág’s Signs Games and Messages, desperately trying to alight on the correct continuation in the second phrase and wondering how many times I can get away with the repetition before anyone notices.

To be honest, that sort of performance problem is – for me at least – one of the less interesting aspects of memory and music.  The way music can trigger associations buried deep inside you and seemingly long-forgotten is a particularly special kind of magic. And while these personal resonances are often rich and powerful, they are perhaps less mysterious than the way we have access to a shared cultural memory such that Schoenberg’s use of ‘Ach du lieber Augustin’ in his second quartet is irresistibly sinister, or the Bach chorale in Berg’s violin concerto is so other-worldly.  Their familiarity as a type, even if you’ve never heard the specific folk-song or chorale, marks them as foreign within their Second-Viennese-School-context and lends them an emotional charge that is – to use another memory cliché – unforgettable.

On a smaller scale, I think this sort of thing happens in music all the time: any musical situation brings with it a whole host of associations and possibilities that are formed partly by the piece you’re writing and largely by the tradition you’re working within (or against), and it’s your job as a composer to play with these in an engaging way.  That can be by doing something conventional, or importing something utterly exceptional as with Schoenberg and Berg above, or anything in between.  It’s so basic to successful composition it’s something we pretty much do without thinking, though when working within a particular generic type – I spent much of the last two years writing concertos – it can become a bit of an obsession.

The quintet isn’t a genre that contains as much structural and gestural baggage as the concerto, but the line up of two violins, viola and two cellos is inextricably linked in my mind to Schubert’s incomparable C major quintet for the same combination: the ensemble itself has a memory.  That’s why, when asked by Aurora and Poet in the City to collaborate with scientists from the PETMEM project and poet Frances Leviston in a new piece of words and music to be performed at The Key to Memory weekend I suggested starting with Schubert.

And then of course I realised I had volunteered to write a piece explicitly designed to sit next to one I just described as ‘incomparable’. No matter. There are lots of memories, not just Schubertian ones, in this piece. Frances invokes Emily Dickinson, Venice, and our meetings with the PETMEM physicists in her poems. My music is necessarily more oblique, but one significant aspect emerged in conversations with the players at rehearsals. It’s the sense that the viola, which plays a solo cantilena for much of the piece, is remembering something that happened before the piece started and is attempting to come to terms with it. The rest of the ensemble shadow and distort the viola line, dissolving it into trills and glissandos, so that the viola has to keep repeating their idea in order to prevent it from sinking into forgetfulness. When this moment arrives and the viola player loses their identity to the swarm, a new process of remembering begins.  An echo of the Adagio from Schubert’s quintet, perhaps my favourite piece by my favourite composer, increasingly asserts itself on the surface of my quintet until the final passages become as if hypnotised by Schubert’s harmonies, crystallising around them like frost on a fallen leaf.


String Quintet will be performed by players from the Aurora Orchestra in the BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert on Sunday 15th October at 1pm as part of Why Music? The Key to Memory, a partnership between BBC Radio 3 and Wellcome Collection.