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.”
In this work, inspired by Paekakariki on the Kapiti Coast – ‘home’ during the composer’s six-week residency at Victoria University in 1989 – the relationship between music and environment is particularly strong. The cello’s low repeated D, which opens the piece, is the fundamental pitch heard in the sea and the restless semi-quavers evoke the continuous movement of waves crashing on the Paekakariki shore. Whitehead’s fascination with medieval philosophy and music, incorporating concepts of natural cycles, is reflected both in the title and in the compositional process, where magic squares were used to generate the background structure.
(Programme note by Emma Carle and Jack Body).
“This is a rich evocative piece that is never merely picturesque, as the title might suggest. It has a lyrical complexity reminiscent of Tippett… (it) achieves moments of great beauty.” (Tim Bridgewater, The Dominion).
“The highlight for me was the premiere of Gillian Whitehead’s Moon Tides, and Shoreline. … Perhaps there are marine associations to be heard in the score, but, more importantly, one appreciates the work’s cool and eminently logical form. The various musical motifs are inventive in themselves and intriguingly handled.” (William Dart, Music in New Zealand)
This single movement work is a combination of the rhythmic techniques of Steve Reich with the harmonic language of Alban Berg, George Perle, et al. I call this new creation, “Pan-tonal phase music.” Originally a three movement piece, even a 1996 revision could not save the last two (which I felt were very weak), so the unrevised first movement is all that remains of what I now believe to be a much better (and shorter) creation.
This work for string quartet centres around a chord of C sharp, F sharp, G sharp, and C which form the foundation on which other ideas are layered, so forming the “pyramid”. The work is designed to show to best advantage the varying qualities and timbres of stringed instruments.
The first performance was given on the 27th November 1983 by the Amabile String Quartet (Alan Foster, Glenda Craven, Lyndsay Mountfort, Annemarie Meijers), the players all being members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. The ‘String Quartet No.1’ was also performed at the National Art Gallery, Wellington in 1983, and at the University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ in 1986. ‘String Quartet No.1’ is a concise work written in an atonal and at times modernist language somewhat inspired by the music of Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. The second movement is a kind of “Second Viennese waltz” – a reference to the Second Viennese School at the beginning of the 20th Century.
This is a set of variations inspired by Copland’s Piano Variations and depicting Auckland rather than New York. Beginning quietly and sombrely, it moves steadily towards a fierce climax before dying away with a hint of better things to come. This work was written for the CANZ ’90 series of concerts held at Auckland University. The composer is pleased with it and the way it was performed though it did not receive a very good review in Canzona; it was considered too restricted in its make-up. The composer is unrepentant.