We live in an impatient world. A television sitcom holds the audience’s attention for less than 30 minutes. The organizers of the TED talks on important issues limit the time of each presentation to 18 minutes. Telemarketers believe they have no more than a minute to engage a prospect. Movie directors want their camera angle to shift every 10 seconds. And the online social media outlet, Twitter, has found great success by limiting messages to just 140 characters.
The world of classical music is taking note. As one component of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s 35th anniversary season’s Chamber Series, the orchestra is hosting the Signum Quartet’s world-wide concert tour of what it calls its “#quartweet project.”
Quartweet? Musician Xandi van Dijk, the spokesman for the Germany-based Signum Quartet, says, “Music is all about communication, and as so much of our communicating happens via social media, we would like to see musical communication take place there as well, so we invite composers from all walks to tweet us a short quartet of 140 notes or less on Twitter: A #quartweet!”
The project came to the PSO through van Dijk’s friendship with PSO executive director Marc Uys. “We know each other from our studies in Cape Town and went on to play in the Sontonga Quartet in South Africa from 2002-2006,” says van Dijk. “I told Marc about the idea, he was immediately taken by it and came up with the wonderful plan of inviting a number of composers who have had a premiere or an association with the PSO to write a #quartweet in celebration of the 35th anniversary season (2015-’16). This would also mean an opportunity to take advantage of the strong community ties the PSO has.”
Says Uys: “This is an ideal sort of project for us to get behind, as it allows us to connect many facets of our programming and present them on one stage. In launching the #quartweet project, we will strengthen our associations with several community partners, including a major educational component involving cutting edge technology, and present a top-class chamber concert with direct connections to our main-stage subscription series, including several world premieres, all with a massive online presence. That is what you may call a win win win win win situation.”
The project will be launched at a residency hosted by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra in October. A partnership with Cardiff University and Rob Fokkens will follow: workshops with student and scholar composers will be an essential part of the project. And Signum will include #quartweets in its concerts and broadcast them regularly on Periscope and YouTube. Additional information can be found @SignumQuartet on Twitter, www.princetonsymphony.org, and
@PSOmusic on Twitter.
Van Dijk and Uys expand their thinking in the following question and answer exchange:
What was the genesis of the project, and what are the ideas behind it?
Van Dijk: The #quartweet project grew out of an idea of having a “sampler album” of really short pieces by as many composers and in as many different styles as possible, and certainly not only in the language of “Western classical music.” This idea later gave rise to a further component of having composers comment on or even extend each other’s pieces, with a possible outcome being something akin to an open-source composition — a meta-quartweet! I don’t know how realistic a meta-quartweet is, but having many styles and many languages is something I’m really excited about pursuing, and maybe the meta-idea will evolve.
What are the aims of the project?
Van Dijk: This is a multi-faceted project, and I like to think of it as a microcosm of that which we enjoy doing as a quartet and of which we would like to do more: Play new compositions by composers we know as well as get to know many new composers from across the globe. Workshops with student composers at universities and conservatories as well as elementary, middle, and high schools will also be an essential part of the #quartweet project.
We would love to see composers in creative engagement with a new and evolving form. Ultimately we hope to see the @SignumQuartet #quartweet platform develop to a place where musicians can connect and communicate with each other and dialogue with each others’ works. And by no means are these new quartweets meant solely for the Signum Quartet! I’d like to see our Twitter page become a place where musicians and other ensembles or quartets can look for interesting new, short pieces to include in their programs or for composers who might interest them.
That having been said, the Signum Quartet will start including a constantly varying selection of quartweets in our concert programs as well as regularly broadcasting on Periscope and posting our favorites on our YouTube channel, and hope that others do the same.
Why are you giving this project a home on Twitter?
Van Dijk: Social media is at the center of a change in how we communicate with each other, and we wanted to extend this experiment in communication to the realm of music and to compositions for quartet in particular.
“The string quartet is the most comprehensible genre of instrumental music,” wrote Goethe to C.F. Zelter in 1829. “One hears four intelligent people conversing with one another, and believes one might learn something from their discourse.”
Now anyone who has been anywhere near Twitter knows that it is sadly not always about intelligent people conversing with each other! Anyone who has written a tweet also knows that one needs to express oneself in a different way, in a more concise way. This in turn has had an effect (for better or for worse) on how we communicate. We see the quartweet not only as a new way of communicating musically but as a composition exercise in concision.
Another important aspect of Twitter is its lightness and informality, something with which to counteract the unfair and often untrue perception of the string quartet genre being bogged down by the weight of the greats and their monumental compositions. I love these monumental compositions, I love playing them and listening to them and feel that humankind can still profit a lot from them, but this is NOT the only and certainly not the de facto approach to the string quartet.
Are there any precedents of four-part compositions of 140 notes or fewer?
Van Dijk: Yes. There are three Bach Chorales: Nos 6, 42, and 130 from the collection of 371 Chorale Harmonisations. Nine of the 12 Microludes op. 13 by Kurtag and all of Webern’s six Bagatelles for string quartet are also under 140 notes. No doubt there are more!
Which composers are involved so far?
Van Dijk: The first person I asked was my brother, Matthijs van Dijk, who replied almost instantaneously with his “Eine kleine Dubstep.”
Uys: We are delighted to have this opportunity to showcase, all at the same time, an extraordinary group of composers who are featured on our 2015-’16, or earlier season. To date we have received commitments to contribute a #quartweet from Sebastian Currier (artist-in-residence at the Institute for Advanced Study), Steven Mackey (chair of the Department of Music, Princeton University), Sarah Kirkland Snider, Julian Grant, Derek Bermel, and Jing Jing Luo, who will have a residency with us later in the season.
Van Dijk: Bruno Mantovani will write us a 10 second #quartweet — we’ll be premiering his (full-sized) Third Quartet at the Paris Quartet Biennale in January, 2016. Konstantia Gourzi will also be writing us one.
What does the education side of the project look like?
Uys: We will be working with third graders at Lawrenceville Elementary School, on short compositions which we will work out together with them and their teacher, Daniel Beal, notate them on iPads, tweet them, and play them. This will be the Signum Quartet taking up an idea Dan has already been refining for a while, and one which is similar to what we want the schools side of the project to look like. Additionally we will be working with university students, and we will include a scholar and a student #quartweet as part of the launch concert, which will take place Sunday, October 4, at 4:30 p.m. at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
Van Dijk: Our partnership with the University of Cardiff will include some time spent at the university, and prior to that YouTube tutorials, where we would not only perform quartweets by student composers but give a mini-masterclass on selected quartweets as well.
How do you define or count “notes”?
Van Dijk: Without becoming too technical, our rule of thumb has been that each notehead counts as a note. A notable exception is if multiple noteheads are tied together without a new articulation — this counts as one note. Performance directions, time signatures, tempo markings, dynamics, articulation, etc. will not be counted. Rests will not be counted either. Only the notes.
How we are accommodating the listening habits (and dwindling attention spans) of today?
Matthijs van Dijk, composer of #quartweet no. 1, sums up the situation: On the whole, people nowadays have a shorter attention span than even five years ago, with the smartphone revolution in full swing, diverting everyone’s attention with apps and shiny lights. As a composer, I feel that one needs to take this into consideration when creating a new work. Although it is very tempting to emulate the great symphonists of old, I find that audiences often don’t have the patience to sit through a work of a certain length (myself included, and I am a huge Mahler fan).
Therefore, if I write a piece I would consider a “larger” work I tend to keep it to about 20 minutes — the length of a sitcom episode (without commercials), a size everyone has gotten used to.
This having been said, I was involved in writing scripts for a series and one of the lessons I took from this experience was how, as a viewer, if one sees a video clip of longer than five minutes, one almost considers it as an “investment” of one’s time and must be really committed to viewing it, whereas one wouldn’t really blink an eye at watching something around three minutes and less.
Same applies with articles online: if not written in list form or bite-sized chunks one will often find someone has written “TL;DR” [“Too Long; Didn’t Read”] in the comment section below.
Although there is still a place in the concert hall for the “epic” work, I think if one wants to get the attention of a new listener, something shorter can do a lot more good than harm.
To share the score of your “quartweet:” Upload your score to any filesharing platform, dropbox, Google drive, etc. and tweet the link. In general the total note count across all four voices should not exceed 140 notes. For more technical information visit www.princetonsymphony.org.