Five minutes before the Arditti Quartet was scheduled to appear on the stage of the Leo S. Bing Theater on Monday night, first violinist Irvine Arditti was sitting at an outdoor table in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art plaza casually smoking a cigar and shooting the breeze. He seemed in no hurry to get on stage. He only had to crane his neck to see a line at the box office long enough that one might have thought that "Pearl Harbor" had hijacked the museum's theater from the Monday Evening Concerts. The concert was clearly not going to start any time soon.
If you believe the marketing departments of our large music organizations, Los Angeles audiences have no appetite for stimulating, demanding modern music. But perhaps those marketers don't go to such concerts. Arditti told me that the largest work Monday night, Luigi Nono's 37-minute "Fragmente--Stille, an Diotima," was so stark that the quartet, which has played it some hundred times in Europe, had always feared programming it for restless American audiences. But he thought the Monday Evening Concert would be the place to try it out.
The Nono quartet, written in 1979 (not 10 years later, as the error-ridden program notes had it), is an Existentialist confrontation with Beethoven. The title translates as "Fragments--Stillness, for Diotima." The allusion is to a Friedrich Holderlin poem, "Diotima." Marked throughout the score (but not recited in performance) are mysterious quotes from the poem.
The music itself is full of small, questioning gestures surrounded by empty space. Near the end, Beethoven is hinted at in musical fragments, but just. There are implications of layers under very soft sounds, sounds often made up of eerie flute-like harmonics or scraping wood. But any meaning remains beyond the ear's grasp.
A sentimentalist takes a few scraps of Beethoven's hair, finds a pathologist and tries to reconstruct a satisfying picture of the man from physical evidence. Nono's Beethoven is just the hair and no more, suggesting, I think, that we have to make the world ourselves, not live in someone else's time, even though we are sounded by remembrances of the past. The performance was intense, fearless, profound.
The rest of the program was only slightly less challenging for listeners and probably no less so for these amazing players. Mexican composer Hilda Paredes, whose "Uy U T'an" ("Listen How They Talk" is a rough translation of the Mayan) was given its U.S. premiere in the program, had fun creating a small drama creating characters for the players. Arditti was the hyperactive violinist; Graeme Jennings a more introverted one; Dov Scheindlin an expressive violist; and Rohan de Saram an absent-minded cellist. The Third Quartet by French composer Pascal Dusapin (who has written four quartets for the Arditti) finds its drama in a complex harmonic language.
But the most intriguing drama came in Julio Estrada's "Ensemble Yuunohuoi," a modular piece that started as a cello work in 1983 and--the notes were unclear--uses some sort of graphic notation. "Yuunohuoi" apparently means "fresh clay without stones" in Zapotec. At any rate, what was heard Monday was a 10-minute work for violin, viola, cello and bass, with Italian bassist Stefano Scodanibbio making a guest appearance.
It sounded like a remarkable conversation in some animistic language of aliens. Influenced by electronics, the Mexican composer has found a way to make strings squeal and rumble in what appears to be meaningful conversation, although one has no idea what that meaning is. This is then the opposite of Nono, with Estrada filling in spaces that we didn't even know existed.
As it has done for more than a quarter-century with astonishing virtuosity and bravery, the Arditti Quartet continues to treat music as something of crucial importance and endless amazement.