1965, 1967, 1985, 1986, 2004, Music

Kagel: Pan; String Quartets I-III (2004) by Arditti String Quartet

This disc collects the first three of Kagel’s quartets and pairs them with a piece he wrote for string quartet and piccolo. (Dietmar Wiesner guests on that piece.)

The first quartet is certainly one of the more radical I’ve ever heard (as well as one of the briefest), most of the music does not resemble the music a string quartet would normally contain, instead featuring lots of picking and foreign noises that suggest that at least some of the instruments (if not all) were “prepared” (i.e. have odd things attached to them). It feels like a very “60s” piece of music, intent on blowing you away with its radicalism, rather than trying to put forward a coherent musical statement. That being said, it’s so damn out there that it’s pretty impressive.

Pan is a far more conservative piece than the first quartet, though it was written two decades later. Though rooted in the tonal freedom of the 20th century, there are actual discernible melodies and parts one might describe as ‘joyful’ (though most of it feels like it belongs to some horror score). It is pretty slight, however.

The second quartet initially really does feel like a retread of the first, utilizing much of the same techniques to create a holy racket. There is an insane moment 3 minutes in which is more powerful than anything in the first. About 6 minutes into the piece, it takes a radical turn back into conventional (albeit very modern) quartet territory. That feels like a logical progression, from the most avant garde thing he could write to something that starts off avant garde but then makes at least some concessions to tradition. So it’s the back half that makes this thing worthwhile and notable.

The third quartet starts off with an actual melody! Written two decades after the first two, it’s clear age has mellowed Kagel somewhat. This is not necessarily a bad thing because the first two quartets were basically just brief demonstrations of how out there he was. This feels like a much more serious attempt at writing a quartet that would be included in the canon. And from listening to it, it has to be my favourite so far, incorporating lots of relatively radical techniques but still recognizable as a string quartet to the listener (instead of four string instruments making weird noises to piss off the establishment). I’m on the fence as to where it sits, but I think it’s probably one of the better string quartets of the 80s, anyway.
It’s a pretty good set, giving you a good idea of Kagel’s progress as a writer of chamber music. Well worth your time.

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