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]

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Concert review: BBC NOW/Brabbins at the Town Hall, Cheltenham
This is emotionally sincere and intellectually intriguing work from one of the liveliest musical minds around
Forty years ago the composer Richard Blackford, then in his early twenties, made a big impression with the community opera Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Since then he has drifted in and out of media attention, but his latest work, Kalon (a Greek word meaning physical and spiritual beauty), reminds us that his is one of the liveliest musical minds around.
Like Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, which preceded it in this Cheltenham Festival concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Martyn Brabbins, Kalon is scored for string quartet surrounded by string orchestra. Blackford, however, differentiates the quartet from the main body by writing much of the music in two different, unrelated metres for the two groups.
Were he a more avant-garde-minded composer, that wouldn’t be too difficult, since a chaos of clashing harmonies could be passed off as part of the fun. Blackford’s style, though, is rooted in modality and tonality, so it’s fascinating to see how skilfully he reconciles these conflicting metrical materials within a unified harmonic framework. That’s not the only interest, though. The outer movements are generally bright and breezy, with the first also evoking Cretan folk music, but the anguished middle movement is much darker. Here the composer says he was inspired by the story of Jewish musicians playing string quartets in the Nazi concentration camps. His music imagines someone going to their death with those sounds in their ears. There’s a transcendentally beautiful quotation from Beethoven’s Op 130 quartet halfway through. Theodor Adorno famously declared that it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz, and it’s generally true that poets and composers should think hard before making reference to those terrible events. Yet Blackford’s new work strikes me as emotionally sincere and intellectually intriguing. I hope it is played often. Richard Morrison, The Times

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”


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