Written by Ben Hogwood
What’s the story?
Entangled is the second album release of Glasgow-based composer Matthew Whiteside. Taking its name from the centrepiece, Whiteside’s Quartet no.4, it is his follow-up to 2015’s Dichroic Light, and adds a further two new quartets.
Entangled itself was commissioned by the Institute of Physics in 2017 for string quartet, electronics and film, as a work dedicated to Whiteside’s great uncle, John Stewart Bell. It explores the proof of ‘quantum entanglement’, where particles are entangled in a ‘spooky’ way.
The substantial Quartet no.5 takes a predominantly slow outlook, while Quartet no.6, which begins the disc, could almost be said to exist without tempo.
What’s the music like?
Entangled is a pretty apt description for the music in this quartet, which is equal parts analogue and digital. The acoustic sounds are treated with studio trickery, the listener’s perspective on headphones cleverly manipulated as the sounds move between foreground and middle ground.
We travel through three movements, entitled Waves, Spooky Action and Spinning, all accurate descriptions for the music within, which contains jagged melodic gestures and writing that veers between fragmentation and long, sweeping notes. There is drama aplenty for Spooky Action in particular, more than appropriate for this time of year, while Spinning disorientates the listener with its sudden loss of a clear tonal base. The experience is quite unnerving all round.
Quartet no.5 also has three movements, none titled, and the structure is heavily weighted towards the first movement, which is almost twice the length of the other two combined. It features a pronounced cello tone buzzing like a fly, the other three instruments expanding out from this drone-like figure. Whiteside uses quarter tones that help bring consonant and dissonant harmonies in and out of phase. The second movement is lighter and more elusive, fading into the middle distance above a lightly plucked dance figure from the cello, while the finale employs a more explicit drone, adding overtones and micro adjustments to create music of tension and imminent peril.
Quartet no.6, which begins the disc, was the last work written and was in part inspired by wind chimes and a particular view Whiteside experienced in Tallinn. It is in effect a folk-inflected drone, played on multiple stops by the strings to make it sound rather like a squeezebox. It is very much a ‘less is more’ piece, setting a rarefied atmosphere and floating some way above the ground thanks to its almost complete lack of bass. A Celtic flavour can be discerned on its wings.
Sitting between the quartets are two bite-sized Responses of three minutes each. These are electroacoustic pieces that work as effective bridges. Response One is a time out from the string quartet texture doubling as an ambient repose, while Response Two is more explicitly connected to Quartet no.4, warping its output and conjuring some intriguing sounds.
Does it all work?
Entangled is an effective piece of work. Whiteside’s writing for quartet takes its lead in part from Bartók and can on occasion draw too much, but it also looks beyond the medium to electronic means, securing a contemporary sound that is strongly communicative.
The structure of the album is effective too, the Responses well placed. Emotionally the three works inhabit very different places, with Quartet no.6 the most immediate and Quartet no.4 the most directly challenging.
The Aurea Quartet give superb technical performances, and give no.6 in particular the ideal weight to help it float on the wind. The recording stresses the leaner textures of the strings, but this aids Whiteside’s music.
Is it recommended?
Yes. It is refreshing to encounter a composer making albums with new classical music in this way, for when used imaginatively the format still has much to give. Entangled also works when interpreted as different shades of brightness. I thought of no.6 as the bright light, no.4 as the dark and no.5 as a deep pastel shade, with a kind of chalky blue in the middle. Try it and see what you think!
Based on the Responses, it would also be interesting to hear more of Whiteside’s electronic work.
You can read about the workings behind Matthew Whiteside’s Entangled on his website here. The commentary is as much about the mechanics – and occasional frustrations – of self-releasing an album, while giving insights into the creation and recording of the music behind.