Peter Ruzicka: String Quartets (ECM New Series 1694)


Peter Ruzicka
String Quartets

Arditti Quartet
Irvine Arditti violin
Graeme Jennings violin
Garth Knox viola
Rohan de Saram cello
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau speaker
Recorded December 1996 and October 1997, WDR Cologne and Immanuelkirche Wuppertal
Engineers: Mark Hohn and Christian Meurer
Produced by Harry Vogt (ECM co-production)

“Die Musik in mir.
Die Musik, die im Schweigen ist, potentiell,
möge sie kommen und mich erstaunen.”
–Paul Valéry

In astrophysics, basic string theory posits that the known universe can be understood through a successful marriage of quantum mechanics and general relativity. Each “string” represents a unique atomic signature with which all physical matter is composed through vibrational fields. In order to explain string theory to us laypeople, physicists analogize these vibrations with those of an instrument: each string is capable of producing a variety of notes depending on where the cosmic finger is placed on the fretboard. The string quartets of German composer and conductor Peter Ruzicka, collected for the first time in this landmark recording, demonstrate this theory with and without words. Through a distinct micropolitics of sound, Ruzicka uses instruments not to make a declamatory statement, but to evince an unstable question. The title of Ruzicka’s third quartet, …über ein Verschwinden (…about a disappearance), is about as succinct a description as one could hope to formulate in regards to his music. Ruzicka’s sound world is sparse, comprised as much by empty spaces as by audible gestures. These spaces, the very ether through which the music flows, are rich with conceptual integrity.

This is music that inhabits its own edges. It bids our silence when it speaks, provokes our speech when silent. The quartets are riddles in and of themselves, even if they contain everything we need for their solutions in plain view. The keys are in the titles. Klangschatten (Soundshadows) is more about effect than about process and seems to disavow its own origins by reflecting those of the listener, separating these two histories with a huge sheet of darkness. The second quartet, „…fragment…”, is a laconic pentaptych of self-styled “epigrams.” Introspezione, subtitled as a “documentation for string quartet,” navigates an introspective matrix filled with quotation marks, question marks, and exclamation points, but not a single period. The fourth quartet, „…sich verlierend” (…are losing) for string quartet and speaker, is an intriguing anomaly. Because so much of Ruzicka’s music is already “spoken,” the entry of a human voice seems quite natural, as if it had been there all along. The music is not incidental to the voice, but rather the voice incidental to the music.

In his liner notes, Thomas Schäfer informs us of Ruzicka’s disinterest in grand narratives and his preference for the in-between. For all their galactic reach, the quartets are utterly rooted in the terrestrial. The third quartet, for example, sounds like George Crumb’s Black Angels stripped of its explosive core and shredded by wind. Violins scratch out their incantation, figures moving in crude stop-motion. Other quartets abound in allusions from Gesualdo to Mahler to Webern in what the composer terms moments of “full identification.” Ironically, however, in such surroundings even the most familiar music seems to come from a distant planet, having reached us by some unimaginably powerful intergalactic signal. And when we do recognize it, we are awed to learn it has come from an abstract “out there.” In the end, it is silence that rules this album, so that any violence that erupts consumes us completely. These are the moments Ruzicka would seem to live for, when the intensity of experience can only be expressed by its sudden disappearance.