Requested by and dedicated to the Fitzwilliam String Quartet
Publisher: Bardic Edition
Score: BD 0812; Parts: BD 0812/1
Duration: 24 minutes
Recorded by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet on ‘Michael Blake: String Quartets 1 & 2 and Piano Quintet’ (MBED002)
First performance: Friday 29 June 2001; National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, South Africa; Fitzwilliam String Quartet.
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
Read the complete review
“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