The ‘Elgin Marbles’, taken from the Parthenon, lie at the centre of a long-standing property dispute between Greece and the British Government. Encountering these sculptures in the British Museum for the first time, I was intrigued to learn that one of the decorative motifs adorning its carved stone form was known as ‘egg and tongue’. The sensuously rounded forms of eggs and tongues alternate and repeat along the borders of the monumental sculptures, an ancient pattern combining symbols of virility and fertility. The motif is widespread: several years later, walking through the ruined architecture of the Syrian city of Apamea, I found tumbled-down stones of Roman structures bearing this same pattern, rain-washed stones in a field of crocuses. In the music of Egg and Tongue, I play with ideas of patterning and fragmentation, cultural property and style. Familiar motifs repeat, adorn, are lost and take new shapes.
Composed in 1989 for the Kronos Quartet, Epicycle is rarely played due to its level of difficulty. The unrelenting running patterns, filled with displaced accents, changing meters, and hairpin hockets (rapidly played interlocking phrases passed from player to player) are just a part of the challenge. Jack Body explains, “When I write for string quartet I like to think of the instruments as equal partners within the same register, each with its own quality of sound, not in the vertical hierarchy – from cello upwards towards the first violin that we normally hear from a string quartet. This makes strenuous demands on the cello of course, who must ascend into the violin’s register, since the reverse is not possible.
Since I first composed Epicycle for the Kronos quartet in 1989 I have always been dissatisfied with tis brief conclusion. In 2004 I decided to rectify this and wrote a new final section (the third) which is a kind of antithesis of the rest of the work – instead of a single line melody we have chords; instead of just employing the upper register we explore a fuller spectrum of sound, though still based on the original circular melody. Thus Epicycle concludes.”
This work for String Quartet consists of four short movements, the titles of which are taken from poems by Janet Frame: The Icicles, The Stones, Moss and The Birch Trees. Each one is a kind of natural miniature, exploring stillness and the simple beauty of quiet sounds, and underpinned by a sense of gentle unease. The Icicles is a fragile, intimate movement without development, tiny fragments of tune colouring the sparse soundscape. The Stones sets up an insistent, pulsing rhythm that hints at the sustained violence to come in Moss, a much denser, edgier beast, a breaking point before the calm. In the final movement, the action is brought back to a quiet nostalgia, recalling the delicate, frail harmonies of the opening. The work as a whole owes much to the aesthetics of John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts and to Janet Frame’s virtuosic portrayal of New Zealand landscape.
For experienced violinist with beginner string ensemble, this piece was written for The Stringed Instrument Company staff members to play at their 2008 Christmas party celebrations. Cath Mayo performed the violin solo.