To mark the release of their new album, The Four Quarters, the Solems talked to Thomas Adès, whose seminal work forms the basis of their project.
Solem Quartet: The Four Quarters is a work which has resonated with us since the very first day we started learning it. Working on the piece with you at Prussia Cove really brought it to life for us and it seemed natural when we came to plan our debut album that this piece should form a major part of it. It ended up inspiring the narrative of the whole disc: the journey from morning to night and all the weird and wonderful moments in between.
When you were writing this piece, how did you go about trying to depict a particular time of day? Do you generally have a detailed image in your mind that you try to translate or does it tend to come from more of an abstract feeling?
Thomas Adès: When I was a child I used to have visions of a mass, a dense knot of matter, human-scale, unimaginably heavy, immovable, and which made a sound: every frequency at once, in a moment.
It was presented to me as a tragic obstacle. It was around this time that I started to lay one note next to another – to compose. I now see this as my only function: to untie the knot and release whatever is trapped there.
It is like ganglia, dense clusters of nerves, or sensations – feelings – that demand to be, in all senses, worked out.
SQ: That’s a really evocative image, and I can totally see how it relates to some of the darker moments in The Four Quarters. In a funny way, the idea of ‘working out’ this complicated obstacle relates to our learning of the piece; the writing is complex and it’s been a thrilling process to learn it. After many hours of rehearsal, we have internalised the intricate rhythms, analyzed the relationships between the voices and found an interpretation that feels somehow ‘solved’ and completely magical to play.
Among the other tracks on our album is an arrangement we made of a Purcell song, By Beauteous Softness, from the ode Now does the glorious day appear. You’ve created your own version of this song, among others by Purcell, for voice and piano – is he a composer you feel a particular affinity with?
TA: I love to listen to Purcell, in all forms. I get a lot from “old-fashioned” performances – like Sir John Barbirolli’s amazing recording of The Gordian Knot Untied – no one would play it that way now, rhythmically, but the way he does it, every single inspired clash of the voices is searingly powerful. The sounds pile up and superimpose with extraordinary emotional intensity. The music has a complete flexibility, too. Look what Wendy Carlos made of the Funeral Music. Purcell’s music has this intense nervous reality.
SQ: I know what you mean about the nervous reality and you can definitely hear that in Now Does the Glorious Day Appear (which is not all as joyful as one might think from the title!)
We’ve featured British music from across a span of three and a half centuries and a real range of genres on the album. One of the pieces we’re most excited about is the bonus track: our own arrangement of Kate Bush’s And Dream of Sheep. The song has a sort of tragic serenity that reflects its narrative: someone is drowning at sea, desperately trying to stay awake and fight for survival, but at the same time longing for sleep and with it, peace. It’s really haunting.
TA: I think her work comes from a place of profound spiritual and intellectual sensation. I was very lucky to see her perform – such power and concentration, she clearly was channeling some much greater force. Like the whirling dervish of the Sufis.
SQ: You really were lucky – not many can say they’ve got to see her play live! She’s an incredibly unique musician, and an extraordinarily imaginative composer.
Thanks so much for chatting with us, and for being such an important part of this project!