String Quartet developments

A few weeks ago I had a meeting with Semra Lee-Smith (violin) to discuss some bird song sounds I wanted to integrate into my latest commission, a string quartet based loosely on the five stanzas of Henry Kendall’s famous 1869 poem, Bell Birds. Semra is an excellent musician and came up with some suggestions to the Golden Whip Bird call I had been having trouble with, and also some imitations of the Willy Wagtail or Djidi Djidi (Noongar name). I recorded her playing and, although we will undoubtedly come up with alterations in rehearsal, the notational solutions I came up with looked something like this:

The whip bird notation borrows from notational devices I noticed in Peter Sculthorpe’s string quartet music, particularly the arrow heads, and studying his scores has been very informative in how to present intentions to performers as clearly as possible. The Djidi djidi scratch tone I have utilised previously in the cello part for Beyond the Wall to great effect, it works particularly well in the cello, however Semra noted a better technique for performing this figure on the violin, mainly by damping the strings using her left hand across the fingerboard and producing the scratch tone ordinarily across the bottom G and D strings. It doesn’t carry as well however, I may leave the Djidi Djidi to the cello and concentrate on using the violins for the higher set “tweety” bird sounds.

The Bell Bird itself has been mainly executed as high pizzicato in the two violins, along with imitations by ear of birds from audio samples of birds within the Bell Birds terrain (mainly in NSW) but I admit to being quite influenced by the birdsong in my own backyard, in the Darling Ranges of Perth, Western Australia. I have so far not included the distinctive Currawong sound I remember so well from my time living in Sydney, and am at a loss to know how this can be done on a string instrument, but I’d like to try! For now, writing remains to be completed, and then the rehearsals can begin. I’m feeling very excited at the prospect of another work coming to life.

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