3 March 2020

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Interview with Camden Reeves

We spoke to Camden Reeves ahead of our premiere of his fifth quartet, ‘The Blue Windows’, at Conway Hall on 15th March 2020.

Meticulous in detail, dramatic in structure and with a touch of the bizarre, the music of Camden Reeves ranges from chamber, to vocal, to orchestral. Born in 1974, Reeves is currently Professor of Music at the University of Manchester, where he has taught since 2002.

Find out more about Camden here: camdenreeves.com

‘The Blue Windows’ is your fifth quartet – what has been your compositional journey through your quartets, and is this a genre which you have particularly enjoyed returning to in your career?

CR – I’ve long felt chamber music to be the greatest of all music. It is the music that speaks mostly directly to humanity. Yes, a string quartet is a wonderful group of instruments, in terms of sonority, but what it is really about is four human beings listening to and responding expressively to one another in the subtlest and most intimate of ways. The string quartet is a model for what humanity can be at its best. If all relationships could work this way, the world would be a more joyful and peaceful place. This is also what makes it so difficult for composers. Human relationships are complicated, and crafting music that lends itself to the richness and subtlety of interaction that the quartet offers is a real challenge.

After completing his Op.18 set of quartets, Beethoven famously commented in a letter that, ‘Only now have I learnt to write quartets’. He had written many before, but he destroyed them. By the time of Op.18, he was already 31. I was 35 by the time I wrote my first proper quartet. Before that, I had wondered if I would ever be able to do it. It was only with the arrival of my colleagues the Quatuor Danel at the University of Manchester in 2005 that I was able to work it out. After I got going, it’s a medium I’ve returned to relatively regularly: five quartets in eleven years.

But this new one is rather different to all the others. The other four are characterised by overt virtuosity and extremes of expression. ‘The Blue Windows’ is still and reflective throughout. The highest dynamic is mezzopiano. I’ve never done anything like this before in any piece for any medium.

How do you practically approach writing for string quartet, and does it differ from your approach to other writing?

CR – Everything I write arises from the nature of the ensemble and the instruments for which I am writing. I do not come up with ideas in the abstract and then just shove them onto the instruments. My piano music is very different to my vocal music, my quartet writing is very different to my orchestral music and so on.

So there all sorts of things about my writing for string quartet that arises from the nature of string instruments: the materials they are made from and how they are played, the acoustic properties that result from that and so on. I also think about the fact that you have to play together without the aid of a conductor and what that entails.

In my other quartets the approach was about contrapuntal interaction and dialogue between the instruments. The music was extrovert and virtuosic. In ‘The Blue Windows’ everything is quite different. Here I was more interested in the players working together in terms of sonority and blocks of colour. Rather than four people in conversation, here it is four people thinking as one. And whilst it might not seem it, this quartet is nonetheless quite virtuosic. It is just virtuosity of a different kind. The harmonies are extremely challenging in terms of intonation and balance. It requires extreme control of sound, of colour and of pitch, and it requires each player to understand how what they’re playing fits in harmonically with what is going on around them in very precise ways. It is a real test for the mind and the ears. The players must phrase and breathe as one. This is not an easy thing to achieve, and not something I would attempt for anything other than the most expert of musicians.

‘The Blue Windows’ is directly influenced by Marc Chagall’s ‘America Windows’ – does your music often stem from inspiration from another art form?

Not really, no. At least not until the last year or so. My work is more often inspired by other music or by nature – from things like the life in the oceans or the mathematics underpinning cosmology. As with so many other aspects of this new quartet, the inspiration here has taken me in a new direction.

I have been interested over the last year in the idea of ‘blueness’. This began with an interest in other music: in the blues. I have written a series of piano pieces for the pianist Tom Hicks that were inspired by jazz and blues, and we are recording a disc of those pieces at the moment.  As part of the research for the last piece I wrote for Tom, I began to look into everything blue and it was then that I first started to explore visual art on this subject. I walked into Tate Modern and asked one of the staff, ‘Could you please show me some blue stuff’. I thought they might think I was nuts, but I guess they’re used to artists coming in and asking that sort of odd question. They were really helpful. They directed me to all sorts of things, including a fascinating canvas of all blue by Yves Klein and the essay ‘On Being Blue’ by William H. Gass which they were happy to sell me in the gift shop. The result of all this was Blue Sounds for Piano. I went to hear Tom premiere this in Chicago in October 2019. (Watch a film of this performance below).

I guess this is my ‘blue period’ or something. Anyway, it was in Chicago that I saw the Chagall windows you mention. I was blown away. I just sat staring at these things for ages to the extent that I became uninterested in anything else in the gallery. I just kept returning to these extraordinary windows. And the music for this new quartet was just there in my head, straightaway. When I came back to Manchester there was a bit of technical work to do first, but I basically just wrote down what was in my head in a few days and the quartet was done. It happens like that sometimes – that the music is just there somehow and I just have to write it down.

When writing quartets are there composers (past or current) who you look to learn from, or for inspiration?

CR – There are so many wonderful quartets out there that we are really spoiled for choice. Ligeti, Shostakovitch, Crawford, Berg, Xenakis, Schubert, Mendelssohn and so many others are all examples I have studied. I always tell my students to look at Haydn because of the amount of air and space he achieves in his textures, Webern for the timbres and Bartók for all sorts of reasons.

But if you ask any composer about quartets I guess most would tell you the same thing: Beethoven’s quartets, especially the late quartets, are about the most extraordinary things ever written by anyone in any medium. They transcend life, reality and even music. I could see it as intimidating that the premiere of this new quartet of mine will be followed by Beethoven’s extraordinary Op.127 in the concert at Conway Hall. But I just see it as a privilege. Beethoven is a colleague, albeit a dead one. It’s an honour to be part of a tradition that includes people like that as colleagues. Hearing Beethoven as a child is what, more than any other music, started me on the path to dedicating my own life to music. Whenever I hear these late quartets of Beethoven I still can’t believe that something like this can exist.

The Solem Quartet will premiere Camden Reeves’ The Blue Windows, alongside Brahms Quartet no. 2 in A minor op. 51/2 and Beethoven Quartet no. 12 in Eb op. 127, as part of the Conway Hall Sunday Concerts series on March 15th 2020 at 6.30pm.

For tickets and more details, visit conwayhall.org.uk/event/solem-quartet/