The theme for the 2022 Canberra International Music Festival is “Pole to Pole”, and some of the country’s most famous poles are housed at the National Gallery of Australia. Masterpiece of Abstract Expressionism by Jackson Pollock, blue polesalso known as Number 11, 1952was purchased by the NGA in 1973. Its price of $1.3 million—a world record for a contemporary American painting at the time—provoked howls of outrage at the perceived debauchery of the Whitlam government, inspiring debate national between those who admired the painting and those who thought their toddler could have painted it.
This Sunday, as part of the festival, a concert will be given at the NGA inspired by blue poles, and by the broader cultural impact of American Modernism. Featured performers are the Alma Moodie Quartet, a relatively new string quartet made up of four of Australia’s finest young string players – violinists Kristian Winther and Anna Da Silva Chen, violist Alexina Hawkins and cellist Thomas Marlin – who will play Ruth Crawford Seeger. Andante movement of his string quartet, John Cage’s infamous 4’33and the world premiere of a new string quartet by Australian composer Brian Howard, entitled blue poles.
Hugh Robertson spoke to Winther via email about the origins of the Alma Moodie Quartet, the repertoire they enjoy playing most, and the ability for a composer to recreate a painting through music.
How did the Alma Moodie Quartet come together?
We wrote to each other to see if we would like to play together as a quartet. We wanted it, so we did it. The story couldn’t be duller, I’m afraid. We made up a bunch of fake origin stories to tell you instead, but they were either not funny or a little gross.
Who was Alma Moodie?
Alma was an extraordinary Australian violinist, who counted among her performing partners many great musicians and composers of the first half of the 20th century, including Bartók, Hindemith, Krenek and Reger. She also premiered dozens of new works and was hugely popular, appearing annually as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for over a decade, as well as in England and across Europe. Unfortunately, she was never invited back to Australia and died during World War II. There is an excellent book on her by Kay Dreyfus, Bluebeard’s Bride – please write to the publisher and tell them to print more copies as there are none left to buy.
Your repertoire at the festival has been quite varied, from Haydn to Brian Howard. Do you enjoy the challenge of performing a wide range of repertoire?
It is crucial for all quartets to play everything from Byrd to Adès; in general, as musicians, if we’re not playing something difficult, it’s a sign that we’re not playing the right music. Perhaps most important in classical music today is choosing what NOT to play. Martin Scorsese has pointed out that the Marvel movies aren’t really cinema, that they’re more like rides in an amusement park. To some extent, I feel the same way about orchestral renditions of film soundtracks. Of course, these events should exist, but perhaps not at the expense of a valuable orchestral performance niche to a composer like Bruckner, Gubaidulina or Bacewicz. Genius music shouldn’t miss a performance because of James Bond or Harry Potter, and frankly, it’s weird that we’ve come to a point in our culture where we even have to write that phrase. That said, I’m going to see a Marvel movie tonight.
What has been your experience at the Canberra International Music Festival so far?
We were lucky enough to play a lot of incredible music for a wonderfully grateful and warm audience: Schubert’s D minor string quartet, D810, Bartók’s fourth string quartet and one of Op. 20 entertainments. And more to come. We heard the brilliant Neeman Piano Duo and the New Zealand String Quartet at a few gigs. There’s so much to see, and Roland [Peelman, CIMF Artistic Director] programming is sharper than ever.
Is there an underlying philosophy to the works you choose to perform? What is the quartet purpose?
We all have different reasons for playing string quartets, and we’re all at different stages in our relationship with the genre. But we are all particularly fond of forgotten works of genius, especially by composers with whom Alma was associated: Bartók, who is a favorite of mine, and Reger, whose five string quartets are almost forgotten.
The blurb for this blue poles concert says, “Hear how American modernism has found an enduring presence in the new city of Canberra”. Did you have a lot of time to sit with Jackson Pollock’s painting? Can you feel any of that in Howard’s play?
I grew up in Canberra so I would see blue poles at the gallery I guess at least once a year. My view is that no one can recreate the feeling or essence of a painting in music, but a composer can only create a personal reaction to a painting and share that musical form with an audience, transforming it can -to be something different, sometimes bigger (Reger, Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky come to mind).
Arguably, Ruth Crawford Seeger’s string quartet (part of which we play in the same concert) is closer to Pollock, in that its raw lines and blocks create visceral emotions and musical “poles” despite its dissonance and its abstraction. But no doubt some will have the impression that Brian Howard’s work evokes painting more strongly.
Finally, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a quartet performance by John Cage 4’33. What do you think a quartet brings to this work?
Any “interpretation” of the play is not necessarily about the actors, but about time, place and the simple awareness of silence or noise in space. But in addition to Cage’s emphasis on sound, the fact that Pollock blue poles in the background during 4’33 raises the interesting question of what role a dramatic two-by-five meter visual cue might play in the creation of Cage!
blue poles will take place on Sunday, May 8 at 2:30 p.m. at the National Gallery of Australia. More information.