In July, composer Bethan Morgan-Williams presented her Royal Philharmonic Society commission – Ghost Tongues – at Cheltenham Music Festival.
She shares her story with us: on composing two works at once, overcoming her quartet-writing fears, and championing her own world premiere against England’s World Cup defeat.
In early November 2017, I received a call from Meurig Bowen, then Director of Cheltenham Music Festival, to talk about my Royal Philharmonic Society commission. I said to him, “So long as it’s not a string quartet!” and the line went quiet. I had one quartet already in tow for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO). Before they approached me earlier that summer, it had not even crossed my mind to write a quartet for many, many years. I really was scared to do it and didn’t feel I was ready for working with this form. It comes with so much demand and expectation and, being a string player myself, I knew the repertoire pretty well too. Were I to say yes to Cheltenham, I would then have to write two! I explained this to Meurig, who did offer me an alternative. But after a week of contemplation, I decided to take on the serendipitous challenge of double quartet writing.
I’d already written 7 of the 15 minutes of the first quartet. The Cheltenham one was to be a further 10 minutes. With the different timings I couldn’t readily transplant the material from Q1 to Q2, so I needed to find a way of balancing my time between two different string quartets, simultaneously. Not an easy task!
First I tried an “if it doesn’t go in here, it might go over there” approach. But soon found this to be very confusing. Then someone suggested thinking of the two quartets as two movements of the same piece; but this was troublesome too, as I wanted each piece to have a separate, distinctive identity. The RLPO quartet already had strong ideas and I was engrossed in it, whereas the Cheltenham one needed persuading to emerge out of very thick mud – and its deadline was looming sooner too…
In February 2018, I put the RLPO quartet aside, accepting it as it was. The second quartet was starting to develop its own character and I was finally able to devote my attention to it without hearing the first one flying around in my head. By the end of March, most of the music was there and I headed to Cambridge to have a workshop with the Ligeti Quartet, who were to perform it at Cheltenham. I’d never met them before and found them extremely amiable, generous, and wonderful musicians.
On the eve of the premiere, we rehearsed again in a flat in a beautiful part of North London. I introduced them to Tony Conrad’s music, particularly his way of playing drones, and asked them to replicate this technique in the final long chord of my piece. They were open and instantly responsive to this. Artistic collaboration doesn’t get much better than that, and I’d definitely jump at the chance to write for the Ligeti Quartet again in future.
When the big day came, we weren’t the only ones buzzing: all of England was awaiting the World Cup semi-final that was due to end just as our concert began. The weather was perfect and the Cheltenham Festival was just as I remembered it from playing there as a teenager: lovely atmosphere, high calibre music-making, beautiful surroundings. How thrilling – and daunting – to return, only this time for something entirely different: to hear my own music being played.
I was nervous for the performance – I always am. I worry even though there’s nothing I can do by that stage. The overwhelming heat and humidity didn’t help either! But qualms asides, it was a truly terrific experience. The concert was very well attended, the atmosphere upbeat. The Ligeti Quartet walked onstage as England were winning but – to Rich the violist’s dismay – came out to find our footballers had lost in extra time. But the match results didn’t spoil our evening. We went on to celebrate into the early hours with drinks and dinner before heading back to the hotel, beaming from having shared our music at such a great festival.
I received very encouraging feedback from the Festival. Most importantly however, I learned a great deal during the writing process and overcame my fear of writing a string quartet. Not just writing one, but two – at the same time.
Now I am even more excited to partner with RLPO and Ensemble 10/10 cellist Hilary Browning, and curate the concert featuring my next quartet. It’s part of the University of Liverpool’s Lunchtime Concert Series in Autumn 2019, so keep your eyes peeled for news to come.
Bethan Morgan-Williams was a winner of the 2017 RPS Composition Prizes. She currently studies at the The Hague Conservatorium (2017-19) and was previously at the Royal Northern College of Music. You can follow her on Twitter at @morganwilliamsb.