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Listen How They Talk — Chamber Music 1998-2001

by Hilda Paredes
Performed by Arditti Quartet
Mode Records, New York, 2005
Audio CD, mode 149, $14.99
Distributor’s website: http://www.moderecords.com.

Reviewed by Eugene Thacker
School of Literature, Communication & Culture
Georgia Institute of Technology


It has become a truism that the string quartet can be likened to a conversation. The instruments are voices, the notes words, melody becomes communication, and so on. Each instrument — violin, viola, cello —has a particular sound to its voice, be it in terms of register, range, or the more obtuse qualities such as breathiness, richness, sonorousness. Each voice not only has a particular kind of sound, but it also "sounds" (talks, converses) in an equally particular kind of way. A violin may be adept at firing off a rapid sequence of notes, or a cello may be adept at long, continuous lines of melody. All of this has a technical language within musicology of Western classical forms, from Haydn and Mozart, to Beethoven, to Bartok, and beyond.

But it is the trope itself of conversation that makes chamber music forms such as the string quartet interesting. If the string quartet can be likened to a conversation, what kind of a conversation is it? Is it an equal dialogue between mutually-respected participants? Or is it in fact a monologue, in which one voice is always louder than the others? Furthermore, our actual conversations also depend on our relations with each of the conversants — is it a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a friend, a lover, a co-worker, a colleague, a stranger, a client, a teacher, a student? Finally, our conversations may vary widely, from high-brow discussions on culture and politics, to the guilty pleasures of gossip, to the white noise of chit-chat.

Which of these describes the string quartet? We would like to ask the question to Haydn, who may very well give us a different answer than Mozart (and this may be different still from Webern or John Zorn). This question, naïve as it may seem, is at the core of Hilda Paredes’ chamber works. Hence the title of the recent Mode CD of her work: "Listen How They Talk." The CD features four pieces: the title piece (for string quartet), "Cotidales" (for piano quintet), "Ah Paaxo’ob" (for ensemble), and "Can Silim Tun" (for vocal and string quartet). The Arditti Quartet performs on three of the pieces, and other performers include pianist Ian Pace, the Ensemble Modern, and the Neue Vokalsolisten Stuttgart. In each of the pieces Paredes meditates on the nature of conversation, whether linguistic or musical.

While classical chamber music — that highest of high-culture musical forms — has traditionally aimed for a "conversation" that is likewise of high standing, Paredes’ hybrid musical influences show us the form of conversation (musical or otherwise) as it really is — polyvalent, scattered, sensuous, frenetic, and quite often interrupted. Raised in Mexico, Paredes moved to London in the late 1970s, there studying with composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies. But the Mexico she left (and that remains in her compositions) is a particular kind of Mexico, that of the traditional Mayan cultures, as well as that of more modern folkloric influences. Paredes’ music is not simply derived from the post-war British school of Davies or even Eliot Carter; it "interrupts" this tradition, or this conversation, with the everyday magical element of traditional Mexican culture.

One of Paredes’ works featured on the Mode CD is from 1998 and entitled "Uy U T’an" (translated from the Mayan as "Listen How They Talk"). Performed by the Arditti Quartet, the piece starts with frenetic, jagged bursts and sheets of sound, musical lines or fragments of conversation pitched in here and there. The violin is prominent in this phase. But then, about halfway through the piece, the pacing suddenly shifts, and long, sinewy, more silent lines are heard. Here the viola is prominent, the other voices almost silently listening. The exchange nearly becomes silent itself, punctuated by those uncanny silences one suddenly hears among the din of a café or restaurant. It then builds up again near the end, this time driven more by the cello. The bits of conversation rise and fall, one voice is started, another continued.

Paredes has often been included as part of a new generation of Mexican composers eschewing any division between northern and southern hemispheric musical cultures, focusing on the often tension-filled relations between them. And while it would not be inaccurate to compare Paredes’ chamber works to those of Ligeti, Xenakis, or Tristan Murail, it is her attention to the relationship between communication and miscommunication, conversation and noise, that sets her work apart. In thinking about Paredes’ chamber works, we can borrow a phrase from the philosopher Michel Serres, "the miracle of harmony." As Serres notes, the amazing thing is that conversation or communication occurs at all: "they neither hear one another nor listen to one another. And yet, sometimes, there is agreement. The most amazing thing in the world is that agreement, understanding, harmony, sometimes exist." But this is, of course, the exception, not the rule; in fact, the conversation, as a complex system, is predicated on this noise, this chatter, that is attempts to expel but that it cannot do without. In a sense, then, Paredes’ chamber works set themselves the challenge of conversing about the entropy of conversation itself.



Updated 1st December 2007

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