String Quartet No 4

For the Fitzwilliam String Quartet's 40th anniversary collection
Bardic Edition Score and Parts BDE 1013
Duration: c. 4'30"


First performance: Saturday 22 November 2014; Ars Musica, Bruges, Belgium; Quatuor Akthamarperformance details.

Programme note

String Quartet No 4 was a contribution to the Fitzwilliam String Quartet's fortieth anniversary collection: pieces based on the Purcell Fantazias for four viols. The ensemble has included these remarkable pieces in their repertoire for many years, and were looking for new works which would complement and reference the earlier pieces. String Quartet No 4, my shortest to date, takes its cue from Purcell's Fantazia No 6, Z737, which ideally should precede it in performance. The material is derived partly from Mozambican accordion music, which I transcribed myself.

String Quartet No 1 (in Memory of William Burton)

Requested by and dedicated to the Fitzwilliam String Quartet
Recorded by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet on ‘Michael Blake: String Quartets 1 & 2 and Piano Quintet’ (MBED002)
Bardic Edition Score: BD 0812; Parts: BD 0812/1
Duration: 24'00"


First performance: Friday 29 June 2001; National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, South Africa; Fitzwilliam String Quartetperformance details.

Programme note

My String Quartet No 1 (in memory of William Burton) is a 24-minute piece about my relationship with two continents and two cultures which have shaped and informed my life and my work. The first movement might be heard as more African, with the sound of the lute or harp dominating, while the second may be heard as more European, in particular the sound of the 17th century viol consort. While one can find a semblance of the classical string quartet structure lurking in the background, almost everything that happens in the foreground, on the surface and just below it, contradicts that structure. The music strikes out on its own path and never really reaches closure, evaporating in the final bars. When I started out I had no idea where the music would go; I just allowed myself to be constantly surprised. From the point of view of the tradition, there are references to the some of the finest string quartet composers of the 20th century -- tiny snapshots of Bartok, Shostakovich, Revueltas, Schnittke and Volans -- whose work helped me chart my own course through the most intimate of mediums, and made me want to write a string quartet in the first place. My piece is also a memorial for a dear friend whose early death left an irreplaceable gap in my life. William Burton too was born, and grew up, in Cape Town and migrated towards Europe in the late 1970s where both of us lived in a largely alien environment, with South Africa as our reference point, and at one level this piece is also about that long, slow migration.


Like his players, Blake also paints with silence. He's a very visual composer; the spiky, rhythmic first movement unrolled like a graphic line drawn by Paul Klee, enfolding pockets of texture written with a miniaturist's care for detail. The slow second movement was simply beautiful: filled with the sounds of living breath, and breath halted, and the breath of those icy stars outside.
Gwen Ansell, Cue, Grahamstown, July 2001

The first movement is like a string of beads laced together, and although none of the beads is identical, repetition plays a large part in the unfolding of the music...Blake presents his material without abandoning its subjective origin or degenerating into arbitrary sequences. It is a delicate equilibrium of relationships (note to note, fragment to fragment) which grips the imagination.

The second movement is an interesting experiment between stasis and dynamics (in terms of movement). The ascending scale, initiated by the first violin and recurring repeatedly, is inevitably coupled to the chronological passage of time. Paradoxically this illusion is dependent on a context of musical stasis. Ultimately the music unfolds in empirical time, but the internal tension of stasis and movement imitates, as it were, the process that takes place between the frozen time of the composed work and the chronological time of the performance. Blake's "non-formal music" is an exciting aesthetic premise and an important addition to our indigenous music.

Stephanus Muller, Die Burger, Cape Town, July 2001
Looking at the writing in an essay like Vers une musique informelle, one is struck by Adorno's dislike of system, his understanding of freedom as a necessary condition of truth and an inevitable trust in the tendencies of material (musical as well as critical). It is this ad hoc criticism, coupled with a broad philosophical, historical trajectory of thought, that makes for the oddly prophetic nature of his criticism and that is perhaps also responsible for the degree to which postmodern theorists have found his thinking irresistible and problematic in almost equal degree. When I heard, for the first time, South African composer Michael Blake's String Quartet in Memory of William Burton when it was premiered by the Fitzwilliam Quartet in 2001 in Grahamstown, Adorno's writing on 'informal music' immediately came to mind. I found the conditions of this music to resonate with the Adornian ideas expressed in this essay; ideas about the intervention of the subject that does not result in domination of the tendency of the material. I use this example specifically to underline the fact that Adorno is not, as is sometimes implied, incompatible with the dynamics of the postmodern, and specifically the South African post-many-other-things. It is not necessary to adopt Adorno in all of his problematic historical and philosophical stances to make use of some of his formidable musical insights. In fact, other than, say, the music criticism of a Hanslick or Shaw, Adorno's music criticism points beyond the music to a philosophy of music, as much as Schenker's music criticism points beyond the music to the norm of the system. It is, in many ways, a music criticism in which music is simultaneously subject and instrument.
Stephanus Muller, International review of the aesthetics and sociology of music Volume 36 No 1, January 2005
The second movement, with its long, mournful strains reminiscent of Arvo Pärt, revealed the first signs of emotion creeping in, and I found this section wonderfully moving. The piece was an elegy for Blake's friend, the violinist William Burton, and one sensed his grappling with the difficulties of trying to codify feelings of loss and nostalgia…Music seems superior to literature in being able to induce and represent feelings which cannot be portrayed in terms of rational configurations… But the beauty of music is that it represents only itself. In the moment of performance there is nothing behind it; it simply embodies that moment.
Anton Krueger, LitNet, South Africa, Thursday 6 October 2005

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Audio excerpt: first movement

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Audio excerpt: second movement

Song of the Bullfrogs

Dedicated to the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet
Commissioned by SAMRO Endowment for the National Arts
Bardic Edition Score BDE
Duration: c. 12'00"


First performance: Sunday 2 July 2006; New Music Indaba 2006, Grahamstown, South Africa; Stockholm Saxophone Quartetperformance details.

Programme note

The Stockholm Saxophone Quartet asked me to write them a piece during their previous visit to South Africa in 2002 and I wanted to have one ready for their 2006 visit. The premiere was scheduled for Sweden in March, but illness prevented me from completing the work in time. The piece was inspired by two frogs in Punda Maria (the northernmost camp in the Kruger Park) who duetted all night after the start of the torrential rains in January that resulted in many road closures and most of the animals simply hiding. But these two fellows croaked on, allowing me to capture them on my mini disc player, and they put in a guest appearance towards the end of the piece. It was commissioned by SAMRO Endowment for the National Arts and is dedicated to Sven, Jorgen, Leif and Per. It lasts about 101/2 minutes.

String Quartet No 2

Dedicated to Grant Olwage
Composed during a residency at Visby International Composers Centre, Gotland
Recorded by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet on ‘Michael Blake: String Quartets 1 & 2 and Piano Quintet’ (MBED002)
Bardic Edition Score BDE 946; Parts BDE 946/1
Duration: 21'00"


First performance: Wednesday 2 July 2008; Summartónar 2008, Tórshavn, Faroe Islands; Marselis Quartet (Copenhagen)performance details.

Programme note

I composed my Second String Quartet, a single 22-minute span, in the short space of three weeks during a residency at the Visby International Composers Centre, Gotland, in December 2006. Unlike my regular composing space in Johannesburg at the time — with its urban view and noisy soundscape — here I looked out every day on the peaceful Baltic Sea and a large congregation of ducks.

The loud percussive interlocking of the stringed instruments was inspired by performances of Tshikona, regarded as the Venda national dance, and involving large numbers of players each playing a single reed pipe while dancing. The contrasting quiet music, played extremely slowly at crotchet = 28, was probably inspired by looking out on the Baltic, prompting me to coin a new Italian expressive term, “Balticamente”. The mixolydian tune later in the piece appeared out of the blue.

I had been reading Adorno's quintessential Minima Moralia and prefaced the score with a line from it: “Thought waits to be woken one day by the memory of what has been missed…”

My Second String Quartet is dedicated to Grant Olwage who conspired with me to create the New Music Indabas in Grahamstown from 2000 until 2006. The first performance was given by the Marselis Quartet on 2 July 2008 in Tórshavn, Faroe Islands. (MB)

Mysteries (in memoriam John Cage)

African Journal No 14
Bardic Edition Playing score BD 0795 in preparation
Duration: 8'00"

Birthday Fanfare

Written for the 75th anniversary of Rhodes University Music Department, Grahamstown
Bardic Edition Score BD 0813 in preparation
Duration: c. 2'30"


First performance: October 1999; Beethoven Room, Grahamstown, South Africa; Bruce Stevens tubaperformance details.

Programme note

I wrote this fanfare for four tubas (or tuba and tape) to mark the 75th anniversary of the Rhodes University Department of Music in 1998, while also demonstrating some of the resources of its newly-opened electroacoustic music studio. I wrote the piece for Bruce Stevens, who having recorded all the parts for the tape was subsequently indisposed at the performance, so he gave the world premiere in absentia. It took place in October 1998.

KwaDtit/Quite Nice

Bardic Edition Score and Parts BDE 810
Duration: 3'45"

Programme note

KwaDtit is a mythic homeland in Northern Gauteng, South Africa. It is also means “quite nice” in the local Gauteng dialect. This little quartet was requested by a recorder player from that region.

Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello

In memory of Myf Kohll
Duration: c. 9'30"

Flute, Clarinet, Cello and Piano

Workshopped by the Fires of London at Dartington Summer School, England, August 1976
Duration: c. 5'10"


First performance: May 1980; Goldsmiths College, New Cross, London, United Kingdom; Goldsmiths Contemporary Music Ensemble, Michael Blake (conductor)performance details.

Programme note

In August 1976 I joined the Peter Maxwell Davies composition class at the Dartington Summer School, where this piece began life as a project to be workshopped by the Fires of London. The remit was quite simple: to move from one harmonic region to another. My fascination at that time with Morton Feldman’s first fully notated pieces of the 1970s was an important inspiration for the soundworld of this piece. It was first performed publicly by the Goldsmiths Contemporary Music Ensemble at my final concert with them in May 1980.            

Hymn and Variations

African Journal No 1
Dedicated to Stanley and Liz Glasser
Duration: c. 7'45"

Programme note

Sometime in early 1978 I heard Stravinsky's Octet in a concert by the London Sinfonietta (in St John's Smith Square, where the brass resonated beautifully), and the "Theme and Variations" fired me up to write my own variations on a hymn, which I finished in the summer when house sitting for Stanley and Liz Glasser. While Stravinsky's "Theme and Variations" are very reminiscent of Kurt Well, mine - the theme in particular - are modelled on, and quite reminiscent of, Stravinsky.”

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