image: Jean Tinguely, Débricollage (1970)
13 March 2019
dedicated 'to Asako Morikawa'
Débricollage is the fifth in an ongoing sequence of works for string quartet entitled A Book of Inventions –
there are seven chapters in the Book so far. The present work takes its title from a kinetic sculpture by Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) - an artist who has long been part of John Woolrich's creative hinterland.
Tinguely’s work is a collage of commonplace objects found in his workshop – including pliers, a screwdriver, a rasp, a hammer and a saw. The hammer and the saw move, independently, in vertical and horizontal motion respectively (as you would expect them to). So far, so easy to relate to - there is no mystery about the constituent parts of the sculpture. But in their juxtaposition and the invisible guiding hand on the saw and the hammer, something altogether mysterious and intriguing results.
Woolrich's Quartet addresses us in similar ways. Throughout, the music obsesses with major-minor thirds - a musical "commonplace" first heard in the opening bars on unison violins and viola and the dynamically distinct pizzicato cello. In decisive contrast to this linear beginning comes an impassioned chordal idea (which in itself contains major-minor third constructions). Defining the material from the composer’s workshop is of course subsidiary to the way it sounds, and what in fact emerges is a spontaneously inventive narrative, at once varied and unified and immediately identifiable as uniquely John Woolrich's.
In simple terms the Quartet alternates two fundamental states and mingles them, so the linear becomes harmonic and the chordal splinters into lines. However, the music doesn't so much move forward as circle the territory described in the snapshot of the opening bars, gradually revealing more detail and renewing itself through magical effects of colour. It isn’t far-fetched to think of this as analogous to viewing Tinguely's sculpture from different angles and how a fixed object alters its meaning according to our perspective. In this respect, Woolrich's description of space through musical register is also crucial, giving the work a tangibly visual quality as the music ascends and harmony evaporates into pure line.
Writing about his earlier Tinguely-inspired It is midnight, Dr Schweitzer, John Woolrich quoted from a lecture that Tinguely gave at the ICA in 1959:
‘To attempt to hold fast an instant is doubtful. To bind an emotion is unthinkable. To petrify love is impossible. It is beautiful to be transitory. How lovely it is not to have to live forever.’
For all the delight in mechanism that Woolrich and Tinguely share, to me, it is these words that encapsulate best the evanescence of Woolrich's urgent and fragile work.
© Christopher Austin 2019