Reviews and essays
Dermot Clinch on A Book of Inventions
There are Books, and there are Albums. We understand the Book. It is structured,
hierarchic, a monolith. The Album - suggested Roland Barthes - is magically
different: an ‘interweaving of contingencies’, an ‘anthology of inspirations.’ Tear a
page from an Album and you ‘lose nothing’. A Book of Inventions by John Woolrich -
six string quartets and counting; a compendium of characters, one-offs to be heard
in isolation, or choice groups, or splendid entirety - is pure Album.
Yet clearly it is also Book: a total project; a model collection of ‘mechanisms for
discovering good ideas’ (as the inventions of Bach have been described); a
significant, and wondrously Protean, addition to the modern quartet repertoire. We
admire the whole, and wonder at the parts. Does Villanesca simply replay an old
Italian dance, as the title suggests? ‘Another journey calls.’ But what kind of
journey, striking out so boldly in the sunshine, ending in an icy hush on the
instruments’ fingerboards? The short stories of Robert Walser were sketches for a
novel that was a ‘torn-apart book of myself’; they too very often took the form of a
stroll by the abyss.
One of the quartets is titled Scamander, after the mythical river. And indeed,
Woolrich’s diaristic pieces, travelling from A to Z at their circumstantial pace, seem
to follow the river mode. But there is always the double edge with Woolrich.
Scamander was a strange river, we are told by Homer, with a source in two springs,
one hot, one cold.
We must be alert. Book, or Album? Hot, or Cold? Or even, possibly, both?
First performance of Badinerie . by the Ansonia Quartet, MoMA New York, July 2018
The first (and stronger) half of the concert consisted of John Woolrich’s Badinerie (2017) and Lei Liang’s Gobi Gloria (2006). Where Ali-Zadeh’s and Desenne’s pieces both felt a tad long-winded, Woolrich managed to convey a thoroughly captivating musical journey (what he describes as “broken shards of music, glued together to make a single movement”) into a ten-minute single-movement work. Woolrich, who was born and currently works in the U.K., is notably not very chatty about his compositions; yet his description of Badinerie (which is one of a group of six quartets, and was heard Sunday in its world premiere) is spot-on. The Ansonia musicians rendered this work with calm virtuosity, creating a propulsive feel both within and between shards: from piercing first violin tones layered over cello pizzicato to the unpredictable yet gorgeous harmonies of the opening jaggedly overlapping ascending phrases.
(Rebecca S.Lentjes, National Sawdust Log)
European premiere of Badinerie by the Tesla Quartet, Snape, October 2018
The European premiere of John Woolrich’s silken, elegantly crafted Badinerie (2017) and some early Britten completed the mood-setting programme.
Fiona Maddox, The Observer, 27 October 2018
First performance of Débricollage by the Quatuor Bozzini, Birmingham, March 2019
Débricollage is the latest addition to Woolrich’s A Book of Inventions, an ongoing collection of such compact pieces that will eventually consist of 10 quartets. His title is borrowed from a kinetic sculpture by Yves Tinguely, in which an assemblage of everyday objects move around each other according to unrevealed rules. Woolrich’s piece also brings together unexpected, apparently unrelated ideas, and creates a narrative to bind them. Sudden brief unisons anchor the music and launch it in fresh directions, whether those are long-limbed melodic lines or clockwork pizzicatos. A fragile, teasing coherence gradually emerges.
...Débricollage is all about making musical sense from an unpromising jumble of elements...
Andrew Clements, The Guardian, 15 March 2019
Andrew Ward on Villanesca
Villanesca is the second of John Woolrich’s series of string quartets he has entitled A Book of
Inventions. The quartet was written for The Benyounes Quartet and first performed by them at the Barber Institute,
Birmingham on October the 5th 2018.
Like the other quartets in the series, Villanesca is a relatively short, one movement work (about 13 minutes)
- but there is nothing slight or insubstantial about Villanesca; whilst describing the piece as being in one
movement might be misleading. This is because the piece comprises fragments which Woolrich
juxtaposes; it is the disorienting effect of the sudden changes of the piece that Woolrich seeks to
achieve - which is not to say the work lacks coherence. Just as the quartets in the series are like the
parts of a jigsaw gradually being pieced together to reveal a whole, the same logic applies to each
quartet. Despite perhaps the composer’s conscious intentions, a holism emerges so that each quartet
has a distinctive character despite their deliberately fragmentary nature.
A Villanesca is a rustic dance; although the rusticity exhibited by the Villanescas within the canon – for
example, those for guitar by Granados and Emili Pujol – is of a genteel elegance that is a long way from
any rugged, rural realism. It will not be surprising that Woolrich’s Villanesca is of a different hue – not
that there are no Iberian shadows. There is a dancing cello, picking out a tango; and throughout the
piece, triplets provide a bounce to every musical idea; whilst the presiding spirit of the work might be
associated westwards on the peninsula with Fado and a sentiment of resignation, fatefulness and
melancholia. But this is certainly not the whole story: there is also passion here; flares of anger; even
noblimente moments. The dominant voice of the piece though is the yearning, haunting material that
the first violin opens the quartet with, and which goes on to permeate the piece.
Woolrich has often said of his concertos that he does not see them as a contest between the orchestra
and the soloist but rather that they both deliver the piece’s purpose together in concert. Interestingly,
the same intention is evident in this quartet. The voices are never in competition – indeed, they can all
contribute to the delivery of a melodic line and - in what is another Woolrich hallmark - they can play in
unison. (Why is it that any ensemble suddenly playing in unison is so intensely affecting, as it is here?).
And although they can be doing quite different things, they remain enjoined. They are always making
the piece together.
The quartet ends – as is typical in Woolrich’s music – without any resolution or definitive statement
but with the return of the yearning music and a pause, a suggestive murmur, a wondering …
The question that any string quartet raises, but perhaps especially one written today, is whether there
is something inherent in the music of the piece that could only be authentically expressed via the string
quartet format. In other words, could the piece be arranged for piano or another ensemble without
loss or distortion of the essential purpose of the music? It is an indication of Woolrich’s current
embrace of the string quartet format that it is difficult to conceive Villanesca (or indeed any of the
other quartets that have so far appeared in the series) having the same expression or impact in other
instrumental arrangements. Above all else, then, this is inherently string quartet music - which makes
A Book of Inventions such a significant project.
Capriccio (for John Woolrich) by Adam Thorpe
As I lug the shorter OED
from the floor to my desk
in one fell swoop (reversed)
of my tendon-pulled left arm,
I think of those who make
of their lives a capriccio-
‘a work of lively fancy,
more or less free in form…
a trick, a prank.’ Plucked from the air
(though it’s not that they don’t care
for seriousness, for solid rhyme)
life to them is a merveille.
to be exhausted and renewed
and slipped from its sheath
each day, or at night pursued.
Ssssh. Don’t wake them
as you solemnly rise for work.
The silence echoes with their high joy:
the secret they’ve understood is that
life lapses. There’s no long term.