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Interview with the Chiara Quartet

img  Tobias Fischer

Creating music, ideally, should always come from the heart. Few musicians, meanwhile, have taken this ideal as literally as the members of the Chiara Quartet. Over the past years, the ensemble has gradually eliminated scores from their practise sessions and stands from their live performances to arrive at organic, intimate and dynamic interpretations adding new sheen to familiar classics. Their recent release, Brahms by Heart, an integral recording of the Brahms string quartets performed entirely from memory, represents the culmination of this process. Already the sessions at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall had something magical about them, owing equally to the 'golden sound' of the space, the tightness of the interaction as well as the production team of Judith Sherman, recording engineer Jeanne Velonis as well as violist Roger Tapping, who also features on the double-CD's rendition of Brahms’ great G Major Viola Quintet. Sound was of vital importance to these considerations: To find a suitable space for the performance, the Chiara Quartet listened to various string quartet recordings in different halls across the USA. In the end, they decided in favor of the Troy hall, since its location  at the upper floor of the bank meant that street sounds were muted and they could record throughout the day. Even more important than finding the right recording location, however, was actually being able to play these demanding works without looking at the score - a challenge they would master through intense group sessions and a plethora of gigs. As hard as it may have been, the effort has paid off: Brahms by Heart is not just another recording, but a true labor of love. In this interview, we spoke to Chiara Quartet violinist Rebecca Fischer about the ensemble's focus on complete cycles, the road towards the new album as well as the challenges of playing by heart.

What are the benefits and pleasures of focusing on complete cycles?
It’s a rare treat to get to play the entire output of a composer’s work for our medium. The string quartet medium invited most of history’s greatest composers, so we are fortunate to have many works to study over any one composers’ lifetime. Our experience with the Beethoven cycle brought us close to the journey of Beethoven’s life. His 16 quartets, many of the most difficult works written for the string quartet, tell a unique story of Beethoven’s life and his most daring explorations into extreme intimacy, frustration, joy, anger, even ruminations about the divine. When playing the cycle we almost felt we were being given a gift into Beethoven’s mind and language. Playing any one quartet might be daunting, however, strangely, playing the entire cycle started to feel like the challenge all finally made sense, we had privileged information. Playing the Bartok quartets is not dissimilar, even though his output is not as great as Beethoven’s. Experiencing Bartok’s six quartets feels like a life portrait, and playing these over two nights - we have yet to play the full cycle in one day - is a fulfilling journey both for us and the audience.

Maybe a shorter answer to this question is that as a quartet we are interested in depth and challenge, and playing a complete cycle of a composer’s works excites us in both of these ways.

What is it that you enjoy about Brahms so much as a composer for the string quartet?
Many years ago we went through a process of making a mission statement in order to shape the next phase of our career, post-schooling and post-competitions. We sat in a room for days on end without playing, just making lists of things we cared about, things we felt strongly about exploring and performing in our career. One thing we all agreed upon was that we all felt close to the music of Brahms and that as a quartet we had a unique voice to bring to Brahms’ music. We wanted our first recording of standard repertoire (we’ve recorded many works written for us by living composers) to be of quartets that resonated powerfully with us. We care deeply about sound as a quartet, and Brahms commands a truly spectacular amount from us in this regard. It is almost as if Brahms wrote his string quartets for six-to-eight instruments instead of four, and we enjoy the space and intensity he demands from us.

This recording of the Brahms string quartets isn't your first one. From an interpretational point of view, can you tell me about the road towards this album?
We spent several years recording the Brahms quartets before we made this current recording, Brahms by Heart. When we were listening to the edited takes of those earlier recording, we all unanimously felt something was missing. The quartets sounded like they were contained, in a box. Obviously this can happen to anyone in the artistic process: you spend years of your life working on a book, for example, and when you see a draft for printing the effect can be underwhelming given that you have grown since the initial writing. In this way we felt that we couldn’t release the earlier recordings as our group’s interpretation of the Brahms quartets, they weren’t expansive and daring enough. So we decided to finish those sessions entirely, and re-record the Brahms. Our second-violinist Hyeyung suggested that we memorize the quartets to take the recording process to another level, and we all agreed. If I have to compare the earlier recordings to the current recordings, everything is different. We are a more mature group now, and we have lived with the Brahms for longer, so we take more risks with timing and sound, we play more openly, our sound profile is more dramatic, and most importantly- and I hope you can hear this too - there is more freedom in our playing, what the playing by heart truly helps us to do.

Clearly, when you're playing the Brahms string quartets, you know the score almost by heart. So what is the difference between playing things almost by heart and entirely by heart?
The funny thing is, as much as it feels like we’re playing by heart when we almost know it by heart, it is always a wholly different ballgame when the music is taken away. Suddenly there is an invisible contract that forms before you; you can either respond with panic or with release when the score gets taken away. Even pieces we can run through by heart for fun in rehearsal are a different animal on stage in performance if we question ourselves. Much of our rehearsal process is done with the music to the side where we can turn to see it if we need to but in general we are relearning the score and each other’s parts at all times. Every performance brings a new level of understanding, no matter how many times we’ve played a piece, music or not. Playing by heart brings that journey to a deeper level.

Can you tell me a bit about how and what, exactly, you memorize when you practice a piece?
Each member of our group memorizes differently. Some of us have strong visual memories, some have perfect pitch while others use solfège to strength pitch memory. Some write out portions of the score to learn it better, some read the score with the individual part covered, all of us study the score intensively. At any given time we are each using multiple parts of our memories and certainly muscle memory is a crucial part. The initial memory work on a piece needs to be done individually so that we are all at a similar place with the memory when we come into rehearsal. We have certainly had many times when we figured out that one of us had memorized something incorrectly. More often we realize that the way one person had memorized something was different enough from the other person that the entire passage needs to be re-memorized in order to develop better ensemble, for example.

Practically speaking, what are some of the challenges of working on the interpretation of a piece without a score?
The biggest challenges I find are the memorization and trusting the memory in performance, not interpretation. Throughout the process of memorizing, our knowledge of the piece becomes greater and more internalized, so the interpretation is almost self-evident. It may be surprising, but at least at this stage, memorizing the score has meant far fewer interpretive arguments in our quartet. The more we trust each other and just play, the more theoretical ideas become extraneous and we can just be free in the moment to interact with one another, really the reason we are playing by heart in the first place.

As part of the memorization process, according to the press release, you eventually came to see sheet music as "a distraction". In which way?
It can come down to the extremes of left-brained versus right-brained activity, or technically-minded playing versus playing by heart, or inward-focus versus outward-focus. It is very easy for classical musicians to get distracted by technical matters right in front of us. I.e. our instruments aren’t responding the way we want, we’re worried about intonation, we’re trying to convey the music with appropriate style, etc. It’s always our quartet’s goal in performance to transcend these concerns and move to a higher plane of musical conveyance, spontaneity - i.e. “just playing.” However when we look at the music, we are naturally reminded of technical considerations in the form of note-reading, even if we know the music well. When we play by heart those technical considerations are secondary as we respond to each other, and we are more easily able to reach out to the audience and each other, the closest thing we have as interpreters to true improvisation.

Also, we are able to sit closer together when we play by heart, as we did in the Brahms recording sessions. In this way our group is more unified on stage. Being part of a string quartet performance, whether on stage or in the audience, is already a very intimate experience, but without stands it completely changes the communication. No stands, no music=more opportunity for true communication all around.

With memory turning into a cheap commodity thanks to technological innovations, is there a sense you're delivering a wider message with this project, which extends beyond the merely musical?
I don’t think our quartet has ever talked in length about the decreasing importance of memory in America today. It is true that in our culture we have few goals or practices that challenge our memories—even memorizing poems in school is becoming less common, and we don’t even need to recall phone numbers because they are easily stored in our smartphones. Our quartet has certainly been intrigued by the study of Indian Classical music, for example, in which students have to memorize extremely long and complex ragas before they can even touch an instrument.

When traveling to other countries or in our own United States we have felt a real appreciation from everyone as we perform by heart. There is something quite special and vulnerable about going onstage without the music and the audience is aware of that. That invisible contract I mentioned before extends to the audience too: we have worked hard to know this music inside and out, and we pledge to bring you along on our journey. Our journey is different from conductors and soloists who perform by heart because as a foursome we are each equally responsible for the outcome of the performance. Hopefully this practice might inspire other small groups or communities to move towards new levels of vulnerability and cooperation.

By Tobias Fischer

If you enjoyed this article, you can also take a look at our 15 Questions interview with the Chiara Quartet.

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