String Quartet no.1
This piece emerged at a time when I was exploring different ways of expressing joy in music (an emotion I have written about here). In this case, I was trying to find poems and images that would somehow embody or even evoke the qualities of joy. The idea was that I could then draw on these sources to inspire the compositional process.
I started by looking more closely at the qualities of joy. One key feature of this emotion, I discovered, is its ephemeral, elusive, transient quality. Yet it is not entirely random: joy tends to arise in situations such as falling in love, witnessing a sunset, making a discovery, receiving a gift, the birth of a child, playfulness, and so on. There seems to be an underlying connection between all these situations, though it is hard to define exactly. We can at least say that joy is usually evoked by (and perhaps reveals) what it is that we value and cherish in life, no matter how small or commonplace.
Reflecting on these qualities of joy led me to explore ‘haiku’, an aphoristic form of Japanese poetry. It turned out to be just what I was looking for.
A haiku has been called ‘the poem of a single breath’: each consists of a mere 17 syllables, ordered in a 5-7-5 structure. Haiku are designed to have the force of immediacy, a ‘lightning flash’ of insight which can illuminate the essence or value of something in the world, no matter how (seemingly) insignificant or familiar. They reflect the view that life can only be lived in the ‘now’, and that a lack of attention to the present moment can result in a kind of squandering of one’s life.1
Each haiku is open-ended‚ with little or no resolution. Yet haiku poems will also hint of connections with the past and what is yet to come. Indeed, there is often an underlying continuity or cyclical pattern within any collection of these poems.
Given all these close parallels, I selected 12 stunningly beautiful haiku to serve as the inspiration for the first two movements of this piece. The first 8 haiku represent 2 complete cycles of the seasons. The next 4 each focus on a winged animal.
What emerged was a sequence of 12 highly condensed, discrete moments of music. Each moment was inspired by the imagery, structure and mood of the corresponding haiku. I even incorporated the haiku’s 5-7-5- structure, using 5-7-5 beat sequences per moment in the first movement , and 5-7-5 bar sequences in the second. Here is an example:
no escaping it —
I must step on fallen leaves
to take this path2
For the final movement, I decided to use images as my source for the expression of joy. In keeping with the Japanese aesthetic, I selected two woodblock prints from Utagawa Hiroshige’s “100 Famous Views of Edo” (1857): Fukagawa Susaki and Jūmantsubo, No. 107 and Tsukudajima From Eitai Bridge. No. 4. The first print is of an eagle, as it begins to swoop down for its meal in the waters below. The second portrays a starlit sky, with fishing boats gently rocking in the port and Tsukudajima Island lying silent in the distance.
I then asked the simple question: ‘What do I see?’ After attending closely to the images, their dramatic and emotive aspects seemed to come to life in my imagination. I was especially aware of the joy that I felt in this encounter with sheer beauty.
I started composing by ear, guided only by my reflection on what I was seeing, my emotional responses and my sense of the inner logic of the music itself. The final movement was the organic result of this process.
After I completed this piece, I submitted it to the Flinders Quartet Composer Development Program (2018), and was invited to become one of five participating composers—which subsequently led to the inclusion of this work in the Flinders Quartet’s 2020 concert program. The Development Program’s performance is presented in the video below:
1 Hardy, J. (2002). Haiku Poetry Ancient and Modern. MQ Publications Ltd: p. 15-16.
2 Translation by Cobb, D. (2002). Haiku: The British Museum. British Museum Press.