By Devon Chen ’22
As the Shanghai Quartet began their performance of Tan Dun’s string quartet, Feng-Ya-Song, I was nothing short of confused. The piece began with a simple pizzicato in the viola, complicated by a puzzling entrance from a violin. The violin part seemed arbitrary, like it could have come in anywhere during the viola pizzicato. However, as the piece progressed, it revealed the underlying reasoning. By the time all four parts were in full swing, the structure became apparent and it was clear that the entrance was no accident. The piece was unorthodox, without a doubt, but intentional, passionate, and ferocious. By the end of the first movement, the cellist had a few stray bow hairs, as if jarred loose by the presence, in the music, of China’s Cultural Revolution. His sound represented a cacophony of millions of voices drowned out by the regime. The movement ended noticeably without resolution.
By nature, string quartets do not have conductors.To not fall into chaos, quartet members employ a variety of techniques to communicate tempo, entrances, and cut-offs. Performers watch a predetermined member for head nods and breaths to prepare each entrance, a circular motion with the scroll to signal a cut-off, and micro-fluctuations in tempo in order to push or drag their quartet-mates. These techniques essentially replace the conductor and keep the quartet in time and on the same page. However, the techniques leave little room for artistic freedom. Often, performers use rubato, or a temporary expressiveness in tempo, to inject personality and emotion into their performance. Spontaneity is essential to any performance, but this can be problematic in a quartet setting, so quartets implement a hierarchy to follow.
The Shanghai Quartet’s impeccable timing and communication is due to their synergy perfected in twenty-five years of playing together.
The innovative nature of Tan Dun’s Feng-Ya-Song pushes the established communication challenges to its limits. At sections of the piece, the quartet plays a rapid sequence of plucked notes to emulate a Chinese guzheng. The series of notes begins with one player and is picked up by another in a moment that leaves absolutely no room for error. The transition from one instrument to another is seamless. Without a visual indication, I would not have been able to tell the run had come from two instruments.
Listening to the Shanghai Quartet at the Hop was certainly a treat, but there is something transcendental about watching a great quartet perform, particularly when they showcase their complete understanding of each other in a challenging and innovative piece such as the Tan Dun string quartet.
Devon is a saxophone player in the Dartmouth College Wind Ensemble. He was a member of the Brevard Music Institute sax quartet in 2019 and a current Arts Ambassador at the Hopkins Center.