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Richard Blackford: Kalon for String Quartet and String Orchestra



Kalon is the classical Greek expression for perfect physical and moral beauty. The three movements explore different aspects of kalon, also the context in which beauty can exist in ugliness and darkness. The string quartet assumes a different persona for each movement, like an actor adopting a different mask for three acts of a play. A feature of the music is the independence of the two string groups which, in the first two movements, predominantly play in independent tempi. Even when in tempo unison the two groups have musical lives of their own, either complimenting each other or interrupting and making dramatic contrasts.[Richard Blackford]

Richard Blackford: Kalon for String Quartet and String Orchestra


Kalon is the Greek word for perfect physical and moral beauty, as conceived by the philosophers of Classical Greece. The three movements explore different aspects of Kalon, also the context in which beauty can exist in ugliness and darkness.  Movement I is a celebratory exploration of subject and countersubject in contrasting tempi; Movement II dramatizes the tempo conflicts with persistent interruptions and dissolves; Movement III explores complex overlapping music in which a single pulse mainly synchronises the two groups. Whereas Movements I and III mostly combine the two groups throughout, Movement II, the longest and most dramatic, presents each group in sustained sections before they are set into conflict with each other. At twenty-four minutes Kalon is by far the most ambitious work that I attempted during my PhD degree at Bristol University and was written from 2015-2016. In choosing a string quartet and string orchestra playing in consistently different tempi I wished to explore new antiphonal possibilities, new rules of counterpoint, new definitions of rhythmic consonance and dissonance. It was originally conceived for two orchestral groups separated on the concert platform with two conductors. I then tried to simplify the concept by writing it for two string orchestras, again with two conductors, being attracted to the antiphonal effect in Bartok’s Music For Strings, Percussion and Celesta. I then read that the Cavatina from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 op.130 had been selected as the final work on the Voyager Record, containing a broad sample of Earth’s sounds, languages and music and lauched into space in 1977.  I found the idea of a string quartet and Beethoven’s Cavatina in interstellar space so moving I decided to score Kalon for string quartet and string orchestra. My chosen ensemble also has kinship with the concerto grosso, and my initial concern that the piece would require two conductors was allayed by Martyn Brabbins, who affirmed that even in the most complex collisions of multiple tempi, one conductor would suffice. I created a number of simulations on Logic, bouncing the string quartet’s music onto audio and then inputting a new sequence for the music of the string orchestra. I rejected sketch after sketch, discovering that if the music of each group was too complex, the combination of the two groups in multiple tempi sounded a mess. Ligeti’s Foreword kept reminding me that the key to the complexity I sought by combining two tempi lay in the simplicity of each group. In this regard I also found Harrison Birtwistle’s preface to the score of Theseus Game (written for two instrumental groups with two conductors) particularly relevant: “Here the intention behind using two conductors was to allow a greater amount of freedom than would be possible otherwise. The various layers are mostly quite simple in themselves, but with two conductors it was possible to fly in different directions and do things that could not be done with only one. If things are too complex they cancel each other out”