The Voices of Dust
image: Terry Smith
Tarred Yarn Store, Royal Dockyard Chatham
25 April 2021
In interview, John Woolrich has said that he writes abstractly -- non-programmatically -- and adds titles later, merely because other people require the pieces to have a name. Even so, the names he chooses are often evocative in their own right, showing his love of language. He could, after all, get away with giving his pieces utilitarian titles like 'String Quartet No.23' or 'Divertimento', whereas he'll go for 'Lending Wings', 'The Turkish Mouse', 'Toward The Black Sky' and so on.
'The Voices Of Dust' from his sequence of string quartets is typical. Even if I hadn't seen it performed in an eerily lonesome storeroom on the Chatham docks, originally used for tarred yarn but now perennially vacant, I would have been capable of weaving a story around this movement.
I imagine a vintage string piece -- by Purcell, perhaps, or Brahms -- which has collapsed and died of old age. Then, in the 21st century, by some stroke of sorcery, the constituent sounds of the piece wake up from their slumber of death. The tidy structure that originally cohered them has long since disintegrated. But here they are -- sonorous moans of cello, murmurs of viola, cries & sighs of violins, rising from the dust. They articulate themselves, hesitantly at first, as if astonished to find themselves alive again. Then, as the minutes pass, they become more mindful of each other, gaining pleasure and consolation from each other's presence. Gradually, they rebuild a structural relationship, somewhere along the spectrum towards the sort of harmonic unity they had in Purcell's or Brahms's time. But that body cannot be reconstituted. What we have instead is something more skeletal, more ghostly, more imbued with loss. And these qualities give it its own distinctive potency.
Silence is as eloquent as sound. The act of moving towards music is as vital as the finished melody. What if we explored that unearthly transition, that half-way impetus towards expression? The artist Jean Dubuffet preferred the voices of dust, what he called the soul of dust, to flowers, trees, or horses “because I sense they’re so much stranger”. So he made works from glass, coal dust, pebbles, slithers of string and gravel.
John Woolrich has made a piece for string quartet in which emptiness is as crucial as sound: enigmatic chords from a quartet imprisoned in silence, from which a wisp of melody now and then attempts to emerge from one instrument or another. A stuttering sequence of dust-like fragments, each trying but refusing to be born to a longer life. Endlessly fascinating and compelling –can we piece its hints together into a whole? From these lines, a sudden united outburst, a flash of light, but just as quickly, a return to the unsolved enigma of the chords, now without even an attempt at a line.
The poet Langston Hughes cried “Oh God of dust and rainbow/help us to see/that without the dust/the rainbow would not be”. And perhaps sometimes, just for once, it is the dust rather than the rainbow that should compel our attention.