Soon after I arrived here in Wintergreen, it struck me that all of the composition students, who are all in their early twenties, have written, are writing or will soon write string quartets. As someone who waited until his forties to venture into this medium, this was an interesting phenomenon. It raises two complementary questions: why are young composers so fearless when it comes to writing string quartets? And why did I wait so long?
And then I remembered. When I was a composition student in the late 1970s, I heard about a festival featuring Elliott Carter and the now-defunct Composers String Quartet, for which the CSQ had an open call for a new music reading session.
They received 1500 submissions.
This was a story I heard from one of my teachers, and it’s possible that he exaggerated the number. But the story made a strong impression: I vowed I would never write for that ensemble.
Three things have happened since then. First, a generation of quartets emerged that was attaining an unprecedented degree of virtuosity, especially with regards to pieces that demand extreme levels of rhythmic and technical dexterity.
Second, an bunch of string quartet workshops sprang up around the country: one- or two-week, intensive sessions in which budding quartets worked closely with established ensembles, learning not only how to play at the highest level, but how to survive in a shifting marketplace.
And third, a new type of quartet emerged, one that attracted new audiences by shunning the canonic works of the repertoire and exploring connections with contemporary popular music.
These three developments led to a situation in which string quartets were seen as flexible, adaptable and cool, in a way that wasn’t imaginable 35 years ago.
So perhaps young composers see the string quartet as an opportunity for exposure and exploration, not as an intimidating body of masterpieces. All in all, a positive turn of events.