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A still tragic dance

image: Chelsey Browne

first performance:

Benyounes Quartet

Tarred Yarn Store, Royal Dockyard Chatham

25 April 2021


to Keith Plant, in friendship

duration: 10 minutes

programme note:

Composers love ambiguous titles. Is this dance ‘still tragic’ or is it frozen into stillness?; are we to imagine dancers, or the dance of life, and where is tragedy? In fact, as so often, the title came after the music, lifted from a Rabelais translation footnote for its aptness and strangeness. We may simply note that dance implies movement, a space danced around, and expect a serious intent.  

John Woolrich is deep in a productive vein of quartet-writing, collecting shortish pieces into A Book of Inventions, each with an allusive title and clearly defined character, each around 10 minutes long.  Short yes, but packed with incident, these pieces feel classical in their respect for the medium and its canon, their working out of tightly controlled material across something we can think of as a journey (many of Woolrich’s titles imply voyaging or physical spaces passed through) and a lack of extraneous techniques; modernist in their concern with the vertical as much as the horizontal, how they juxtapose material, their uniquely personal voice.  

Stravinsky warned of the pitfalls of talking about music, noting Schumann’s remark that ‘in music nothing is proven’. Suffice to say that viola and cello do set off on a kind of dance, urgent, halting, ricocheting off each other, which is taken up and variously transformed across the work’s span. The tone is insistent throughout, and we are rarely without at least a forte dynamic in the texture. The urgency is occasionally intercut with a stasis of single held notes or a brief silence, until finally the music, volume abruptly turned down, evaporates into nothingness.  Beyond this, it’s up to us to bring our attentiveness and complete the circle which gives music its life and meaning. John Woolrich provides a route; we bring our own map.

(Stephen Newbould)

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