The Quartet’s Death: Embodiment, Performativity, and Physicality in Heinz Holliger’s 1973 String Quartet
Date of Degree
Composition | Music | Musicology | Music Practice | Music Theory
Heinz Holliger, String Quartet, Analysis, Embodiment, Performativity
Throughout the twentieth century and continuing today, many composers have explored and expanded the ways in which performers are asked to interact with their musical instruments. Often referred to as “extended techniques,” these modes of playing frequently produce sounds of indefinite pitch, or which fall outside equal temperament, and the works that employ them rely on the physicality of these techniques in order to create additional layers of meaning. The concrete parameters involved in making use of such resources can sometimes take precedence over or drive other more abstract compositional materials such as precise pitch and rhythm, but their influence over the musical fabric is not immediately apparent from the score alone. In fact, music that makes extensive use of these techniques can only be fully appreciated in performance, where the embodied nature of such alternative ways of interacting with musical instruments is brought to the foreground together with the unusual sounds they produce.
Our traditional analytical tools, however, evolved to explain that which goes on in musical scores, reliable documents from which verifiable knowledge can be extracted. They rely on abstract systems of organization of precise parameters such as pitch and rhythm and are often insufficient to make sense of the concrete, sometimes imprecise musical structures that can be found in many recent works. Numerous authors, such as Judy Lochhead, Carolyn Abbate, and Nicholas Cook, have both called attention to these shortcomings and suggested avenues for the investigation of musical works that do not lend themselves to traditional analysis.
The present dissertation seeks to contribute to this discussion with an analysis of Heinz Holliger’s 1973 String Quartet. It is, in essence, a score analysis, but one that puts the physicality of performance front and center. Holliger’s Quartet is fundamentally about physical transformations and interactions: progressions of bow position, changes in finger pressure, different degrees of bow pressure, imitation between players, sounds obtained from the wooden body of the instruments, and, especially, changing the instruments’ physical state by repeatedly tuning down their strings, to the point of depleting their string tension almost entirely. As this precious potential energy is drained out of the instruments, the physical demands on the players themselves also take their toll, and, at the end of the work, Holliger combines the airy noise of bowing on tensionless strings with the performers’ own exhausted breathing to stage the death of the string quartet.
My analysis investigates Holliger’s String Quartet as a work to be played by people of flesh and bone with instruments made of wood and metal. It discusses how the composer understands the instruments as physical objects and turns their physicality into compositional material to be manipulated, it describes the transformations of playing technique that gradually break apart the traditional manner of performing on string instruments, it observes how Holliger leverages the individuality of the performers as creative collaborators who can interact in different ways, and it demonstrates how he brings together the physicality and physiology of the performing forces to stage a dying organism.
Alexim, Vicente, "The Quartet’s Death: Embodiment, Performativity, and Physicality in Heinz Holliger’s 1973 String Quartet" (2021). CUNY Academic Works.